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00:43 Mon 21 Apr 2014

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The Resurrection: Four Voices, One Story

An objection that is regularly raised regarding the resurrection of Jesus, is that the four gospel accounts simply don’t match up. They are laden with contradictions and inconsistencies, which demonstrate that they are not trustworthy accounts.

There are all sorts of things one could say in response, about the value of multiple accounts, the presence of inconsistencies as a sign of authenticity… etc. But actually, I think it’s quite possible to draw together the various details from the four accounts to create a perfectly plausible, non-contradictory, harmonised version of what took place on Easter Sunday.

It’s important to note that all four gospel accounts agree on a number of basic points about what happened at the resurrection:

* Women visited the tomb and found it to be empty
* Jesus appeared first to the women (or a woman) and commissioned her/them to tell Peter and the other apostles
* Mary Magdalene is present in each account
* They all mention that the tomb had previously been sealed with a stone

However, there are a number of points at which the gospel accounts appear to disagree with one another. For example:

* The number and identity of the women
* The precise time that they visited the tomb
* The purpose of their visit
* What happened to the stone
* The appearance of the messenger(s) and whether he/they were angelic or human
* The precise message they gave to the women
* The women’s response

Now, I would argue that none of these discrepancies are, strictly speaking, contradictions. That is, no one account expresses the details in such a way as to make the content of the other accounts logically impossible. If one gospel were to claim that only one woman ever visited the tomb, and other authors claimed that multiple people from both genders visited the tomb, we would have an irreconcilable contradiction. But as it happens, none of the gospels claim to tell the whole story, and the fact that John claims that Mary Magdalene visited the tomb whilst Luke also mentions Joanna, Mary the mother of James and others, is no more contradictory than me having three separate conversations in which I say:

a) I went to watch the football yesterday
b) I went to watch the football with my brother yesterday
c) I went to watch the football with my brother and three of his friends yesterday

Each retelling simply adds a further part of the story, and I might have any number of good reasons for only revealing certain bits of information in each conversation. (I should point out, I didn’t actually go to watch any sport with anyone yesterday… it was an example! Before you vociferous sceptics attempt to reject my entire argument on the basis of the football fixtures!) 

So here’s my attempt at drawing together the details of what I consider to be four complementary accounts, into one retelling of the Easter story. I should point out that this is not the only way one could harmonise the stories; it is one way of many. I don’t know that this is precisely what happened. But the fact that there are many possible ways of harmonising the gospels gives me confidence that one of them is likely to be true, and that there is nothing in the gospel accounts that renders the Easter story inherently implausible.

A Harmony of the Accounts:

Easter Sunday. Two groups of women set out to the tomb. In the first group were Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Salome (Mark 16:1). The probably set off from the house of John Mark where the Last Supper had taken place.

In the second group were Joanna and her companions. (Luke 24:10 doesn’t tell us that Joanna was in the group with Mary Magdalene; merely that they all told the apostles the story.) It is possible that they set off from a different location to the first group. Joanna was the wife of Cuza, who was the manager of Herod’s house (Luke 8:3) so it is likely that this second group started their journey from Herod’s residence, in a different part of the city to the first group.

Whilst they were journeying to the tomb, one angel dazzled the guards and moved the stone (Matthew 28:2-4). He then sat inside the tomb (Mark 16:5). When Mary Magdalene’s group arrived first, Mary saw that the tomb was empty and so returned to tell Simon Peter (John 20:1-2). At this point the other Mary and Salome looked inside and met the angel (Mark 16:5) who explained to them what had happened.

Mary the mother of James and Salome then ran off ‘with fear and great joy’ (Matthew 28:8) to tell the disciples. However it appears that fear got the better of them and they were too terrified to tell anyone (Mark 16:8).

When the second group arrived at the tomb the first angel who had removed the stone had been joined by another. The two angels greeted the women, told them the news and sent them to the disciples (Luke 24:3-8).

Mary Magdalene, Peter and John ran back to the tomb (John 20:3-9) and when they found it empty, the disciples returned home, leaving Mary Magdalene weeping outside. At this point she spotted two angels inside the tomb (John 20:10-11), before turning to see Jesus himself; his first resurrection appearance (Mark 16:9). She failed to recognise him and mistook him for a gardener, but once she realised who he was she went back to the disciples, this time not only declaring that the tomb was empty, but that she had actually seen Jesus alive (John 20:14-18). 

During this time, Mary Magdalene’s original group of women were cowering in fear and too terrified to tell anyone (Mark 16:8) until Jesus met them personally, told them not to fear, and sent them again to the apostles (Matthew 28:9-10). This time they went (Luke 24:10).

Happy Easter!

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Dying, He Saved Me

One of the problems of growing up in the faith is that you know the stories so well, have heard them and sung them and made egg-shell-and-lollipop-stick models out of them so many times, there’s a danger that you stop hearing them, and stop thinking about them.

I was recently asked to write a short reflection on some of Jesus’ last words from the cross for this series posted by the Evangelical Alliance (EA) during Holy Week. To my shame, it made me realise that I don’t actually understand the gospel.

I’m sure you all do. I’m sure you’re going to read this and roll your eyes and wonder what kind of whacky church I’ve been hiding in, but bear with me, not least because there’s a chance some of the people you’re going to be preaching to over the next couple of weeks have missed this, too.

“It is finished,” Jesus said. His enemies must have rejoiced. His friends must have felt that last flicker of hope finally be extinguished. This really was it. It was over. He said so himself.

But we happen to know it wasn’t really finished. Not in the sense that he had been defeated. It wasn’t time for the disciples to go home, pick up their nets and try to remember how to catch fish.

So…(and this is the bit that has never occurred to me to question before)...what did he mean by ‘It is finished’? The work of salvation? Does that mean he could have stayed dead and my salvation would still be assured? As I’ve written in my EA piece, the Greek phrase used by John to bring Jesus’ words to us had the connotation of a debt being ‘paid in full’. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death, signifying that the separation between us and God was over.

But where does that leave the resurrection? Surely the work of salvation wasn’t completed until Jesus had risen again, and returned to the Father?

My understanding, as taught in Sunday School, preached in sermons, and sung in more hymns than I can remember, is that our salvation was made possible by the fact that he conquered death. If he had remained in the grave, our hope would be worthless. As Paul puts it “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).

Peter, however, quoting Isaiah, asserts that it is by Christ’s wounds that we are healed (1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53:5), not by his resurrection. Yet in Romans we learn that “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

Of course, being timeless, omniscient etc, Jesus knew that his resurrection was inevitable and was in a sense all part of his ‘death event’. Like a Weeble’s, his tumble downwards would inevitably be followed by a spring upwards, the one was incomplete without the other, and a physical impossibility. Thus, in his death, Christ’s resurrection was assured and could already be said to have happened.

Calvin, apparently, argued much the same thing (though without the reference to Weebles). It seems to me a somewhat cheeky, metaphysical explanation, though. An evasion rather than a solution.

So what could Jesus have meant by those final words before he gave up his spirit?

As I’ve discussed this with friends and family over the past few days, trying to get my head around it, where we’ve come to is this: Jesus was saying that the task given to him by the Father was finished. He had done all he had been called to do, the prophecies about his birth, life and death had been fulfilled – or would be in the next few seconds. The resurrection was God’s to bring about – it was part of the justification process, but it was not within the remit of Christ himself. His task was finished. His work on earth, as the God-man, was done.

There would be more later. He would be back – twice – but those things were in the hands of God.

Or as one of my favourite hymns puts it:

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
  Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever:
  One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

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The End is Nigh!

Apparently I believe that the world is going to end at some point in the next year. Or so I’ve been told…

This week I was greeted by a series of tweets and newspaper articles claiming that Christians (of whom I am one!) believe that the appearance of four blood-red moons in the next 18 months or so signifies that the world is about to end. Which was news to me.

Actually, I tell a lie. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been told that. The first was over dinner a couple of months ago, when I met a perfect stranger at a conference, who informed me midway through the second course of the planet’s impending doom. I chuckled - thinking he was joking - then quickly realised I’d misjudged him and tried to cover up my mirth by disguising it as a choking sound. 

I don’t think I got away with it.

But no, seriously. Google ‘blood-red moon’ and see for yourself. The phenomenon – a lunar eclipse – is caused by a chance aligning of the Earth, the Sun and Mars, causing the moon to appear red-orange in colour. Apparently the appearance of four in quick succession is known as a tetrad and there have only been three tetrads in the past 500 years. Each has, apparently, coincided with a religiously significant event such as the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily in 1493, or the creation of the state of Israel in 1949 (or a spike in dispensationalist book sales!). Nobody quite seems to be able to say why this tetrad signals the end of the world rather than simply another significant turning point within history (except for the odd throwaway reference to Joel 2:31). But I’m sure there’s a good reason.

The cause for this sudden interest is that the first blood-red moon is coming within this week, beginning a cycle that will conclude on 28 September 2015. I’ve not read around enough to know whether each eclipse is meant to herald a different event, culminating in the Second Coming next September… I don’t like reading ahead and spoiling the surprise!

I don’t know how you react when you hear these kinds of things? Chuckling and choking (chokling?) aside, here are three responses I typically tend to cycle through.

1) Laugh. 

My instant reaction when I hear theories like this, or reports of the next in a long line of people who think they’ve calculated the timing of the rapture, is to laugh. When I hear of people giving up their jobs, buying up advertising space, and taking to the streets bedecked in sandwich boards advertising that ‘the end is nigh’ I roll my eyes, and I want to do whatever I can to disassociate myself, my church, my faith and my Lord from crackpot fringe forms of Christianity.

So I sometimes think that laughing – not scornfully, but with a tone of light satirical mockery – might be a helpful response. Perhaps it might show my friends that not all Christians think like John Hagee, Harold Camping, or whoever else might be the Apocalyptic Spokesman of the moment. Hopefully they may realise that I consider these predictions to be as silly as they do.

But on the other hand, the frequency of these stories provokes my second reaction…

2) Cry.

The flipside of wanting to laugh is that I am genuinely bothered by the fact that so many people think Christianity is so patently laughable and it makes me somewhere-between-angry-and-sad to think of how much of a distraction these stories are.

When Christians right across the world are working incredibly hard to demonstrate and explain their faith in compelling, accessible and credible ways, the shrill voices of people on the fringe only make that task harder! It is an unwanted distraction!

Now, to be fair, I’ve not come across many Christians who have told me they think this tetrad is an indicator of the end of the world. Maybe that’s in part due to the side of the Atlantic on which I dwell? The irony is that I’ve heard this theory more from newspapers who are reporting that this is what Christians are saying, rather than from Christians themselves. Admittedly, some papers and sites do recognize that this is the opinion of a fringe minority. But given that, it bothers me that papers think this is even worth reporting! It demonstrates to me that there is a desire to communicate the weird elements of faith – those stories sell and reinforce people’s view that religion is odd or outdated.

My appeal is this – let’s not give people more reasons to consider Christianity odd than they need to have. The virgin birth, trinity, miracles, resurrection, ascension and promise of the second coming are already hurdles enough. Let’s not go creating more! 

I really liked this short video from Greg Boyd where he (in a rather impassioned manner) unpacked some of the patent absurdity of the Blood Moon Theory and encouraged his church to focus on what matters. Well worth seven minutes of your time – even if they do happen to be your final seven minutes on Earth!

3) Repent.

My third reaction, though, is to repent. You see, I do wonder if laughing and attempting to distance my faith from these sorts of theories may do some harm. In passing end of the world theories off as laughable fiction, we may well give people the impression that we don’t take the second coming seriously at all.

When Harold Camping predicted that the world would end on May 21st 2011, he and his followers declared that it would be ‘Judgment Day.’ When it was reported in the press and discussed by various people online, it was rebranded ‘Rapture Day’ and people scheduled ‘Rapture Parties’ to celebrate. I wonder if this subtle shift demonstrates that we really have no place in our thinking for the idea of judgment?

Paul’s words to the Athenians are still as true and urgent as ever:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

Jesus’ return is coming. Probably not next week, or on 28 September 2015. I suspect it will be more unexpected than that! But it could happen, or it could happen sooner… Either way, are we ready?

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Slack Activists

Being linguistic pedants, my fellow contributors at THINK will most probably not appreciate me slamming a noun here, but here it is: Slacktivists.

I heard this term from a friend who had been at a recent New Wine conference where Pete Hughes spoke about reaching and working with those in their 20s. In my interactions with other church leaders a recurring theme is the extent to which we are struggling to engage our 20s. Perhaps it was ever thus and all that has changed is that my friends and I are now middle-aged. Perhaps, but I think there is something more to it than that.

Back in the day when my generation was being referred to as ‘Generation X’, and ‘Millenials’ were just a twinkle in a futurologists eye,  I was particularly taken by Douglas Coupland’s description of ‘option paralysis’. This is the state of affairs whereby we are unable to make a decision because there are too many possible choices and we are terrified of making the wrong one. This has all kinds of negative consequences: from an inability to fulfil social engagements to a reluctance to commit to relationships to depression induced by the complexity of life. This was an issue when Coupland identified it twenty-something years ago; it is even more an issue today.

Option paralysis often combines with an unhealthy mix of a sense of entitlement and a belief in the strictly limited availability of time. For example, a pastor friend told me that one of his worship leaders had announced he would not be able to lead worship for three months as his wife was having a baby – as if becoming a first-time father would so incapacitate him that he would be unable either to worship or strum a guitar. Similarly it is typical to find that those in their 20s are appalled at any suggestion that their commitment to church might mean more in time and attendance than two hours on a Sunday (maybe two Sundays a month) and possibly one evening a week. 

This is a generation that really does want to change the world. It is a generation that cares about social justice and global issues. Yet too often this activism is worked out no further than posting links on Facebook: hence (and I know I’ll get upset comments for this) the term ‘slacktivists’.

The problem this creates for middle-aged pastors is that it can seem that those who are most vocal about wanting to have a role to play in church life are the least reliable when it actually comes to turning up and taking responsibility. This often leads to serious disconnect, with frustration on all sides.

What to do?

I can’t claim in any way to have this one cracked at Gateway, but it seems that at least part of the solution is to create an ‘ownership culture’ in which our 20s feel that their voice is heard, that they are entrusted with meaningful roles and where they experience friendship as well as fathering from an older generation. The activist part of the equation has to be encouraged and grounded in reality, while the slacker part has to be exposed for what it is.

The challenge is not so much for the Millenials to up their game, as for us Gen-Xers (and those Boomers who are still at work!) to up ours. If we do not connect our 20s into the mission of the church we will be in big trouble when the Millenials themselves are middle-aged.

None of us can afford to be slack about this: we need to be activists!

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Try (not) to Blend in

There’s a great scene at the climax of the movie Sister Act in which the nuns, dressed in full regalia, arrive in a Reno casino in search of one of their number, Sister Mary Clarence. The Mother Superior, played by Maggie Smith, instructs the nuns to split up and urges them – with that actress’ masterful sense of despairing futility as she glances around at the skimpily-clad occupants of the bars and gaudy slot machines – “Try to blend in”.

Last weekend, Gen Sir Peter Wall, the British Army’s chief of general staff, said that the Army ‘must consider’ allowing women to serve in close combat roles.

According to a BBC report, the last review of MoD policy, in 2010, acknowledged that women “would be able to meet the physical and psychological demands of [such] roles”, but “raised concerns that having men and women in small units for months at a time could undermine ‘team cohesion’”(!).

The report continues:

There has been debate within the armed forces about whether women should be allowed in close combat roles.

Brigadier Nicky Moffat - who became one of the most senior female army officers - said in January 2013 that it was wrong to dismiss people just on gender.

She said she was “deeply uncomfortable” with the idea of excluding a whole group of potentially capable soldiers, just because they were women.

But responding at the time Major Judith Webb, who became the first woman to command an all-male field squadron, said that women might not meet the standards required for combat duty.

She said that opening it up to women might be self-defeating because they were not going to meet those standards.

So was Gen Sir Peter Wall engaging with these arguments? Was he saying that women ought to be allowed to apply for all roles because there is no difference between women and men, and the current laws are arbitrary and thus discriminatory? Was he saying that allowing women to kill people in all the same ways men can is the right thing to do?

No, his argument, slightly bizarrely, is: “Allowing them to be combat troops would make us look more normal to society.”

Since when was ‘looking normal’ the highest ideal for us and our institutions?

Well, since forever.

We don’t like to be different. We don’t like to stand out. Yet as believers that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.

Israel caused itself big problems by asking for a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5), but we are told time and time again in the New Testament “Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” and “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do”.

As we seek to contextualise our message, and to ensure we are not interpreting the Scriptures through our 21st century Western blinders (as Matt warned us earlier this week), we must remain alert to the danger of trying to blend in. There’s a fine line between making our systems and processes accessible to all and watering down our core beliefs in order to be more appealing. Changes in style are one thing, but if we’re making a change to the substance of our teaching contrary to what we believe to be true and right, simply because it will make us look ‘more normal’, then I think we’ve got a problem – as does the British army.

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Cultural Blinders

Well, things seem to have been a bit quiet here of late. Andrew is still on his Lenten break, but will be returning with a bang after Easter. I’m not sure about Jennie and Liam, but my excuse is that I have been spending a lot of time on the road.

Last week I was at a conference with 80 church leaders from around the world. Actually, to call it a ‘conference’ isn’t really a fair representation of what was going on – rather, it was a gathering of friends who are called into mission together. Many of these men are dear friends of mine, who I only see rarely as we are scattered around the globe, and it was a great joy to be with them for a few days.

With us was the leader of a church planting movement from a Muslim-majority nation. He shared some remarkable stories of gospel advance and also harrowing accounts of Christian suffering – believers hacked to death, church buildings destroyed, a pastor’s wife kidnapped and held as a sex-slave for eighteen months. When he had finished there was a stunned silence in the room, and a speedy adjustment to the program as none of us felt able to continue as planned.

Talking with some of the other westerners there I found I was not alone in lacking any frame of reference to process what our brother had said. My lack of reference points was in itself my main ‘take home’ from his session. I like to think of myself as culturally sensitive and alert to the need to contextualise, but this session made me realise just how enculturated I am. The questions I ask and the assumptions I hold are entirely those of someone raised in the late-modern west.

One of the most punchy sessions of the week was a series of questions posed by another church leader from another Muslim-majority nation. The focus of the conference was to equip and release apostolic teams to global mission and this particular pastor challenged us to think about how we might approach mission differently if we didn’t do it through a western grid. When people from unreached people groups come to faith in Christ they tend to ask different questions than those who come from the traditional ‘centre’ of Christianity. Using Paul’s description of his visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 my friend provoked us with these questions:

1. At what point is an emerging apostolic ministry recognised? Does this happen when the ‘centre’ validates it, or can it be self-validating?

2. How do you contextualise your doctrine? Paul describes how he was entrusted with ministry to the gentiles, while Peter was entrusted with ministry to the Jews; so is there a context where those from the margins can say, ‘this is what we’ve been preaching’? Western theologians still exercise a disproportionate influence over the way in which the church thinks (or is told it is meant to think). At what point do we allow theologians from the majority world to begin to define our theological paradigms?

3. How do multi-apostle teams work? The leaders in Jerusalem received Paul and Barnabas. As we go on mission together what would it look like for us to do as Paul and Barnabas did?

4. What is ‘the right hand of fellowship’? Did Peter and James think they were giving Paul permission to continue with his mission while Paul thought they were simply recognising him as an equal? When is ‘the right hand of fellowship’ commissioning and when recognising – and what is the difference? At what point does western Christianity recognise majority-world Christianity as an equal, and at what point is it being merely patronising?

5. What does ‘perceiving the grace given to me’ look like? How would we identify grace given to those from the majority world who might be doing things rather differently from what we are familiar and comfortable with?

These were good questions, though as another pastor from a tough part of the world expressed it, they weren’t so much questions as bullets! To some THINK readers, to even approach Galatians 2 in this way might seem an extraordinary liberty, but that probably only serves to confirm our cultural conditioning. The reality is that the church is growing most dynamically in the majority world, albeit often accompanied by blood and tears. If those of us in the west are going to keep up we will need to learn to think along different lines, even on THINK.

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Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and the Image of God

Here's a guest post on the Noah movie from Nathanael Smith, who is a leadership trainee (and aspiring film critic!) based at King's Church in Edinburgh:

Perhaps all you have heard about Noah, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky, is the storm of controversy that has greeted its arrival in America, with accusations levelled against it that it is anti-Biblical, trying to push an environmentalist agenda and that generally Christians should avoid seeing it at all costs. On the surface, the claims against Noah make some sense. Aronofsky draws on the Book of Enoch heavily – Nephilim feature as ‘the watchers,’ fallen angels here rendered as rock giants (??); the renovation of the earth is a major theme in both – as well as Jewish tradition alongside the account as described in Genesis. The most egregious reinterpretation is that instead of Noah receiving direct instructions from God to build the ark, Methuselah gives him a hallucinogen which gives him the idea. Scattered throughout the film are lines and ideas like this that are bound to make a Christian shift uncomfortably in their chair. Look beyond this, however, and the controversy is, for the most part, misplaced.

Aronofsky (whose stunning, strange film The Fountain shows a similar preoccupation with eternal life, paradise and death) has crafted an impressive fantasy epic that takes a heavily imaginative approach to interpreting one of the Bible’s most baffling stories. Archaeological and biblical information about antediluvian life is scant to say the least, so the director shoots it as an almost alien world, full of barren landscapes and vivid, colourful night skies. With very little in the way of fact to go on, Aronofsky lets his imagination rip – look out for the armadillo-dog hybrid – and the result forces us to look at a well-worn story totally differently. That’s his approach to the whole film: there is so much we don’t know about this era of primeval history that it’s OK to take some creative license with the world-building and narrative. As such, it’s a constantly inventive, expertly made film with creative flourishes that may well leave you breathless. Just don’t expect something that cleaves particularly closely to four chapters in Genesis.

Yet for all its creative license and claims by the director that this is ‘the least biblical film ever made,’ Noah subtly expresses some beautiful, divine truths beneath all the aspects likely to annoy large amounts of viewers. If you would rather go into the film without knowing in detail how it pans out, skip ahead, as the next two paragraphs contain spoilers for this millennia-old story. One of the boldest decisions that Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel make is to take the eponymous hero down a dark path in which Noah becomes convinced that God’s plan is to wipe out all humanity, himself and his family included. He sees the utter brokenness of humanity and recognises the sin of others within himself, but in his fervour he extends this theology to believing that the new, post-flood Eden will only contain animals as humans will only ruin it again. Once on the boat this conviction escalates to almost unbearable levels of tension and culminates in a shocking, difficult scene – performed with power by an on-form Russell Crowe and Emma Watson – that is sure to raise the hackles of many viewers.

Noah’s belief that only animals deserve to be saved has led to accusations that the film is anti-gospel, but it misses the point of his arc as well as his ark. The conclusion of Noah’s ideological journey shows a shift in this view; ultimately he comes to the realisation that people are made in God’s image and are, therefore, worth saving. God gives humanity, not animals, a second chance – we get another shot at subduing, having dominion, and going forth and multiplying. Humans as the image of God set aside for relationship with Him, second chances, and God as a sovereign creator, are all themes that course throughout the film, belying the facile accusations of heresy levelled against it. Noah is a film that doesn’t shy away from Genesis’ claim that ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth,’ (6:5) and it does involve God wiping out the entirety of humanity save for a few people, but it also shows through the inherent sinfulness of man – heroes included – that they need to be saved. It wrestles with wrath, judgement, forgiveness, justice and mercy, and not always in ways that you expect.

The villain of the piece, a local ‘king’ named Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) also believes in The Creator (never referred to as “God”, as arguably they had no name for Him before Moses) but the stark difference between his ideology and Noah’s highlights another profound truth hidden beneath some of the more dubious elements of the narrative, namely, the propensity of man to commit idolatry. Tubal-Cain believes that he was made in God’s image, but deduces from this that he is a god himself. As Winstone growls out lines championing the individual and claiming that a man’s will is important above all else, many audience members will likely sympathise with him, especially as Noah is pushed to darker places as a character. Yet the overarching message, and an unpalatable one to individualistic Western audiences, is that Tubal-Cain is wrong, that humans are actually accountable to a higher being, sometimes to the point of destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive, moving element of Noah is that God is present throughout the whole film. Like the book of Esther, he never speaks explicitly to Noah – occasionally to points as frustrating as the aforementioned hallucinogen – but His existence is never questioned, and it is often there in seen and unseen ways, whether it is from the supernatural growth of forests or in a crucial moment of mercy. From the outset, God is presented as sovereign, in control and, in the jaw-dropping standout scene of the year so far, the creator of everything we see.

Noah won’t be for everyone, not least for its sprawling structure and attention-demanding 138 minute running time. Some of the artistic and narrative decisions made here could well prove to be a liberty too far, particularly the interpretation of Noah himself, changed for dramatic and thematic purposes to the point where he no longer looks like ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation.’ However, the occasionally dubious details should not put you off the bigger picture of a film that openly acknowledges a creator God, discusses the nature of sin and justice, and presents a story that has been made twee by Sunday School as a tense, shocking, violent, beautiful and thought-provoking drama. Go and see it. Just don’t ask me about the Nephilim.

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Is it sinful to lust after your boyfriend or girlfriend?

In response to last week's post on lust, a commenter asked, “Could you possibly comment on lust in boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. Where is the line between attraction (surely important) and lust?”

By way of an answer, here is an extract from my book:

Biblically speaking, lust is always presented as something negative. Lust is about desiring something that is not yours to have. Lust is unhealthy desire. Lust is destructive because acting on it always means violating God’s laws and other peoples rights. In the end, lust leads to our destruction. Proverbs tells us that, “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the treacherous are taken captive by their lust.” And Jesus said that to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery with her.

Because lust is always negative, we need to learn to distinguish it from those desires that are appropriate and healthy. For example, it is right to desire food when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty, and sleep when you are tired. These are desires God gives us in order to stay healthy. But it is wrong when these desires get distorted – when our desire for food becomes gluttony, or our desire for drink drunkenness, or our desire for sleep laziness.

In a similar way, it is right for a husband and wife to desire one another sexually, but it is wrong to have this desire towards someone you are not married to. Practically, this might mean that a husband carries a picture of his wife in the nude with him when he is away from home because he has a right to see and desire his wife. But carrying a picture of a woman who is not his wife would be lust, and wrong!

So where does this leave you in how you should feel about your boyfriend or girlfriend? Obviously, there is meant to be physical attraction between you. It would be really weird to have a relationship with someone if you didn’t fancy them! But where is the line that means you have crossed into sinful lust?

This becomes even more of a problem if you are going to get married, and the closer you get to the wedding day. I remember when Grace and I were engaged being given a book about sexual technique in order to help prepare us for when we were married. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with that as all it did was make me think even more about Grace’s soft skin than I had been already – was I allowed to be thinking about her this way? As we were engaged was it ok to now start fantasizing about sex? Was I lusting sinfully or staying on the straight and narrow?

So how are we going to answer this question about lusting after your boy/girlfriend?

I think the first thing is realizing that it is lustful – and therefore sin – to desire anything that you are not entitled to. And the reality is, you are not entitled to the body of your boy/girlfriend. Until you have come into the covenant relationship of marriage with someone you have no rights over their body. You therefore need to be doing everything you can to kill lust – or it will kill you. In a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship this means not doing anything that stirs up passions in you that you should not be experiencing.

But perhaps an even more important thing than recognizing what lust is, is seeking to have a heart that runs faithfully in pursuit of Jesus over and above anything else. If your number one desire is to live in a way that pleases him, then lust is going to get squeezed out of your way of thinking. And this means that rather than lusting after the person you are dating you will be seeking Jesus as to how you can best honor him and bless them.

Having your heart directed this way doesn’t mean that you will no longer feel sexual attraction or desire, but it will mean that those desires are kept under control. It means that you will be able to shepherd those desires and keep them where they are meant to be, just like a farmer herds a flock of willful sheep so they all stay in the place where they are safe.

And if you do get married, having your heart directed in the right direction will mean that you are not bringing lust to bed, but pure and passionate desire for your marriage partner which you offer to them as a sacrifice of love – and not merely as a way to satisfy your own selfishness.



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The Meaning of Life in 3 and 43 Minutes

This three-minute video from Stephen Fry is doing the rounds on Social Networks at the moment.

In it he explains how he can be happy and how it is possible to find meaning in life without belief in a transcendent God or over-arching purpose to the universe. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a fairly nicely expressed, hope-giving video. And I appreciate the fact that Stephen Fry does not adopt an unnecessarily hostile tone towards those whose faith he disagrees with in this video, unlike some of his atheist counterparts. But I can’t help but feel his video only tells part of the story…

Last week I watched this talk by Tim Keller on ‘A Meaning that Suffering Can’t Take Away.’ I’m a big Keller fan anyway, and even though I was familiar with all of the ideas expressed here, I found it a fascinating (if a little shambolic and under-polished!) place to start a series designed for sceptics who are ‘Questioning Christianity.’ You can find out more about Keller’s series here and his Pascalian approach to apologetics here

Without replicating Keller’s argument in full, I think he makes a helpful distinction between different types of ‘meaning’ that videos like Fry’s fail to account for. He frames the talk around the question ‘can there be meaning in life without God?’ and his answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

He observes that there has been a shift in thinking about meaning that is unique to Western Culture at this point in history. That shift is to see meaning as being ‘self-created’ rather than ‘discovered.’ In previous generations and cultures, meaning was thought to exist objectively and could be discovered by us through religion, intellect, experience… etc. But now, many thinkers – and Keller cites examples from the likes of Thomas Nagel, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould – deny the existence of objective, discoverable meaning. However, they argue, this should not be a problem. In fact it is a freeing thing, for we can decide what our own meaning is. We can find meaning through living the best life possible in accordance with our passions and values. Hence Fry’s video.

Now, in a sense I find this quite compelling. Not the ‘there is no objective meaning’ bit. But the ‘we can derive meaning from living well’ bit. I know that there are certain things I can do, certain ways I can live, that create an enormous sense of purpose; like I’m achieving the things I was put here to do. People of all faiths and none can find an enormous sense of happiness and purpose from doing their work well, giving to those in need, building life-giving relationships etc.

But, says Keller, the problem with these self-created forms of meaning is that they are less durable than their ‘discovered’ counterparts, because they can be easily destroyed by suffering – and all of us are, at one point or another, bound to suffer.

He cites Tolstoy and Viktor Frankl, both of whom reflected deeply on the difficulty of maintaining hope and meaning in the face of death and/or suffering. In his Confession, Tolstoy famously asked, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” and when faced with enormous suffering in the death camps, Frankl noted that the people who were best-equipped to maintain hope were those who believed that there was something beyond this life.

Keller puts it like this,

‘Every single civilisation or culture before our own always said your meaning in life is something outside of this life. And therefore even though suffering hurts, suffering can actually help you get to your goal. Suffering is terrible, but it can actually make you a better person. But if the meaning of life is here and it is something the death camp can take away from you then you’re not durable.’

Now clearly a statement like that is hardly the final word on the matter, and one might easily respond that belief in the afterlife amounts to little more than wishful thinking. (For evidence and further arguments, continue listening to Keller’s series and examine the claims about the historical evidence surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.) But I find it to be a helpful clarifying distinction, and one that explains the continued attractiveness of religion even in a highly secularised age such as ours.

By all means, derive joy from moments of a job well done; a deed kindly offered; a life changed through generosity. But know this: unless these moments and sources of meaning are undergirded with something more durable, external, and eternal, then they may not be able to withstand the inevitable pressure that comes with unexpected suffering.

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Review: Counterfeit Gods

Somebody told me recently that many of Tim Keller’s books are basically his sermon series(es?) padded out and packaged up for resale. I don’t know if Counterfeit Gods is one of those, but it certainly reads like it. Imagine chicken nuggets with the breading peeled off, stuck together with some filler materials and breaded again to look like an escalope; all the same nutritional value is there (!) but the end product somehow feels a bit odd and bitty.

Don’t get me wrong, all the nuggets of truth are good, but bits of the book felt fairly repetitious in a way that they probably wouldn’t have if you were starting from scratch, with a whole chicken, as it were.

It’s a stylistic issue, but the content is worth chewing over (OK, enough of the foody metaphor!). Each chapter focuses on a different idol (love, money, power, success) and uses a Biblical story to illustrate it (one of the clues that these are re-packaged sermons!). I loved the depth of exposition in some of these – such as the explanation in the Abraham and Isaac section of why the command for Abraham to sacrifice his son would not be so bizarre to Abraham as it is to us:

The Bible repeatedly states that, because of the Israelites’ sinfulness, the lives of their firstborn are automatically forfeit, though they might be redeemed through regular sacrifice (Exodus 22:29, 34:20) or through service at the tabernacle among the Levites (Numbers 3:40-41) or through a ransom payment to the tabernacle and priests (Numbers 3:46-48). … Why? The firstborn son was the family. So when God told the Israelites that the firstborn’s life belonged to him unless ransomed, he was saying in the most vivid way possible in those cultures that every family on earth owed a debt to eternal justice – the debt of sin. … [In asking Abraham to make Isaac a burnt offering, God] was calling in Abraham’s debt. His son was going to die for the sins of the family.

Some of the other interpretations seemed a little weaker, though, like extrapolating Laban’s idolatry from the few brief mentions we have of his actions, or Leah’s breakthrough into worshipping God not her husband and children from the names she gave them – they’re possible – perhaps even probable – interpretations, but they’re the sort of thing you can get away with speculating in a sermon, but putting them down in black and white leaves more time for the reader to think ‘Really?’ I’m no scholar of ancient Middle Eastern naming culture, so maybe all the evidence really is there, but it left me with a ‘Hmm…’ rather than an ‘Ah-ha!’

For me, the real strength of the book was in Keller’s pointers to how to identify your own and your culture’s idols (I’d have loved more on the latter, especially as I was reading the book along with my church ‘Connect group’, and some deep discussion about how to identify – and thus start to counter – cultural idols would have been really valuable).

What do we fear the most? What, if we lost it, would make life not worth living? (p. xxii)

If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!” (p. 99)

The true god of your heart is what your thoughts effortlessly go to when there’s nothing else demanding your attention…What do you habitually think about to get joy and comfort in the privacy of your heart? (p. 168)

What is your real, daily functional salvation? … A good way to discern this is how you respond to unanswered prayers and frustrated hopes. … When you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god. (p. 169)

A final test works for everyone. Look at your most uncontrollable emotions… Look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong. Ask “Is there something here too important to me, something I must have at all costs?” … “Am I so scared because something in my life is being threatened that I think is a necessity when it is not? Am I so down on myself because I have lost or failed at something I think is a necessity when it is not?” (pp. 169-170)

These questions are really helpful, and have led me to a lot of soul-searching over the past couple of weeks, which I think is a healthy exercise once in a while, not least because of I Corinthians 10:12 (“if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”)!

So overall, it’s a short book with some interesting insights and helpful questions, and is worth a read. I think it’s probably most effective as a tool for pastors/counsellors (and anyone interacting with people day to day, and seeking to speak into their lives) to help them identify the roots of issues in the lives of people they are working with (there’s a very helpful little section on surface idols and deep idols, too). I think if you were really deeply enslaved to one of the idols listed it would probably take more than one of these chapters to help you even admit it to yourself and begin to seek to replace it with the true God. But maybe I’m just too cynical.

I’ll leave you with one final nugget, which could be used to spark a discussion on cultural idols (coming, as it does, in a section talking about how Americans tend to idolise their political parties, such that when the opposition gets in it is a disaster, the country is ruined and the leader is considered the embodiment of evil (viz George W Bush/Barack Obama)).

Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. (p. 100)

Would you like fries with that?

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The Use of Prophecy

This morning I was at a prayer breakfast with a couple of the Reformed pastors from my town, and we were discussing the gift of prophecy. At the same time, another member of my team was at a different prayer breakfast, where a team from Bill Johnson’s Bethel Church were ministering. A lot of what emanates from Bethel makes me uneasy – it smacks too much of Californian therapy culture for me, with too little gospel. But I also very much believe in the practice of prophecy today. So here’s a round-up of my prophetic thoughts.

Some resources:
Earlier in the year John MacArthur’s ‘Strange Fire’ conference generated a lot of heat. In response to this The Gospel Coalition published two helpful articles, which we’ve previously linked to here: Sam Storms on ‘Why I am a Continuationist’ and Tom Schreiner on ‘Why I am a Cessationist’. If you haven’t previously given much thought to the subject, this is a great place to start.

A key text: 1 Corinthians 14:1
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy

Paul here gives a clear instruction to the Corinthians and it would be reasonable to assume that if this instruction no longer applies there should be an equally clear countermanding imperative. Throughout the chapters in 1 Corinthians concerned with the use of spiritual gifts, their practice and the pursuit of love are closely tied together. The logic of Paul’s argument is that if the command to love has not ceased, neither has the command to prophecy.

1 Corinthians 13:8 says prophecy will cease, but only ‘when the perfect comes’ (13:10). Often cessationists have argued that ‘the perfect’ refers to the completion of the canon, but this simply doesn’t stack up. Ciampa & Rosner’s superlative commentary on 1 Corinthians (Pillar, 2010) makes this plain: “The context (esp. v. 12) makes it abundantly clear, however, that the point at which Paul expects the gifts to pass away or disappear is when we see the Lord ‘face to face’ and ‘know [him] fully, even as [we are] fully known.’”

Three responses
It seems to me that there are three broad responses we can make to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians:

1. The ‘Strange Fire’ response
This is that Paul’s instructions to practice prophecy and spiritual gifts do not apply beyond the apostolic age. Exegetically, this is less than convincing, as Andrew has previously discussed here.

2. The Thiselton response
In his excellent commentary on 1 Corinthians (NIGTC, 2000) Thiselton argues for the historical Puritan and Reformed understanding of ‘prophecy’ meaning preaching: “Here prophecy amounts to healthy preaching, proclamation, or teaching which is pastorally applied for the appropriation of gospel truth and gospel promise, in their own context or situation, to help others.”

While this interpretation has a strong history it feels like special pleading – what Paul describes as prophecy is surely very different from what is normally meant by ‘preaching’.

3. The Continuist response
Surely the most straightforward way of handling 1 Corinthians 14:1, this response assumes the verse means what it says and we are to continue to desire spiritual gifts just as we are to continue to pursue love – in fact, part of the way in which we pursue love is in our desire for spiritual gifts.

Putting the continuist position into practice
Assuming the continuist response is a legitimate one, what might this look like in practice?

Firstly, it would mean that a failure to desire spiritual gifts and seek their operation in the church is to miss out on God’s intended blessing for us. As a continuist, this is my position. While recognising the many extremes and failings of many Pentecostals and charismatics, I am also convinced that the antidote for misuse is not disuse but proper use.

Four personal prophetic stories from my own experience might helpfully illustrate this proper use. Each one is a worked out example of 1 Corinthians 14:3, “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding & encouragement and consolation.”

1. Moving to London and becoming a youth pastor
Twenty years ago I was in a meeting at which Carol Arnott prophesied over me that I would live in London and have an impact among young people. At the time I was living in Canterbury, had no desire to be in London, and no interest in youth ministry. However, a short while later I found myself serving in a South London church and eventually becoming the youth pastor and then heading up youth ministry for the Newfrontiers churches. Carol’s word was greatly affirming throughout this process.

2. Ugandan tongues
One time a member of our worship team sang out in another language during the Sunday morning service and I responded with what I believed to be the interpretation (1 Cor. 14:27). A Ugandan woman in the congregation told me after the service that what had been sung was a Ugandan victory song, to which I had brought an accurate translation. This was very upbuilding!

3. The naming of Gateway
When I moved to Poole the church I pastor was called Alder Road Baptist Church. For a number of reasons I thought it would be appropriate to change the name at some point but this happened much more quickly than anticipated when a Canadian prophet by the name of Keith Hazel came to town and spoke over some members of the church: “I believe God re-commissions you tonight to be a might army in the community, God wants you to touch Poole by the power of the Holy Spirit and be a gateway into the Kingdom of God.” As soon as I heard that prophecy the word ‘gateway’ leapt out at me, and the rest is history.

4. Eldership appointments
Last November we appointed three new elders at Gateway and at the ordination service a leader from another church brought a prophecy: “The picture I had was of a roof made up of thousands of shingles, each one of both the new elders and existing elders representing many of these shingles, which well laid in the hands of a master craftsman such as God have the most amazing patina and colour variations whilst making the most beautiful roof. I felt God was saying that he was growing the team by extending the roof and that you as a team were to focus on building the roof well and he would fill in the space under the roof by bringing in more and more people.” We now have a cedar shingle and the words of this prophecy framed on the wall of our office. It was a very encouraging prophecy.

Prophecy or illustration?
Commenting on a debate about prophecy between Doug Wilson and Adrian Warnock, Andrew Wilson observes, “Effectively, then, what we disagree about is not whether people hear from God today, but what we should call it when they do.” This is a helpful observation, and rather than black and white pronouncements about what is prophetic and what is not, it is sensible to acknowledge a prophetic spectrum. For example, sometimes a charismatic will ‘bring a prophecy’ and reasonably believe it is in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, while the cessationist might reasonably believe it to be simply a helpful illustration or encouragement. The prophetic picture above concerning roofing shingles could come under this category. At other times a prophecy is much more obviously divinely given, such as in the example of a Ugandan song.

I would want to encourage everything on this prophetic spectrum, including ‘words of knowledge’ in which the speaker discerns something they could not possibly have known unless it was revealed by God. Illustrations, encouragements, preaching, and words of knowledge, all can be ‘prophetic’ and all should be pursued and practiced.

A practical safeguard in receiving such things as prophetic is that the more specific prophecy is, the more carefully it should be weighed. As the scripture says, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:20-21) Because we continuists do not see contemporary prophecy as carrying the same authority as scripture, there is no problem with rejecting what fails the test of scripture, without then dismissing prophecy as bunk. I think the New Testament gives us examples of exactly this.

Errant prophecy in the inerrant word?
There are a couple of examples in the book of Acts where it seems we have examples of prophecy which are clearly regarded as genuinely prophetic (i.e., from God) but are not completely accurate.

1. The case of Agabus:
Acts 11:28 is an example of prophecy that seems to be fulfilled as it was delivered: Agabus prophecies about a famine, and that famine then happens. However, in Acts 21:10-11 Agabus gives us an example of prophecy that was fulfilled, but not in its details. Agabus was correct that Paul would be handed over to the gentiles, but incorrect about him being bound hand and foot by the Jews. Commenting on this Schreiner says: “Agabus didn’t make a mistake in prophesying that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans. To say he erred demands more precision than prophecies warrant.” But this ‘precision’ is exactly what cessationists so often demand of continuists!

The cessationist argument often goes that if prophecy is genuine prophecy it must be inerrant prophecy, in which case precision is key. This then creates a very circular cessationist argument: if such prophecy occurs, does it not then carry the same authority as inerrant scripture? But the canon cannot be added to. Thus there cannot be prophecy.

For the continuist, the obvious solution to this problem is that it is fairer to recognize that Agabus ‘prophesied in part’ (1 Cor. 13:9). This is an example of prophecy that is genuine prophecy, but prophecy that does not carry the same weight as inspired scripture. It is the same kind of prophecy that we should ‘eagerly desire’!

2. Paul & the Spirit
Before Agabus prophecies about Paul being handed over to the gentiles, Paul had already “resolved in the Spirit” (Acts 19:21) and was “constrained by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22-23) to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome. Yet, “...through the Spirit [the disciples in Tyre] were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). Later on Paul states that an angel told him he must appear before Caesar (Acts 27:22-26). This might all seem somewhat contradictory – as a friend put it to me, “Someone was wrong—because they couldn’t both be right.”

For the continuist, this really isn’t a problem. In this case, clearly Paul was responding to the leading of the Spirit, and by the Spirit the Tyrian disciples were seeing something of Paul’s fate, also by the Spirit, even while their application was wrong. In that sense they were both right, even while some of the details were muddled. So we have here an example of the need to test prophecy, not a reason to abandon prophecy – which is exactly the position the responsible continuist takes.

I want to see more prophecy. I need more upbuilding, encouragement and consolation, and so does my church. I also want to avoid wackiness and anything that takes our eyes off Jesus. I want the Bible to be held up as our final authority and guide. These desires are not mutually incompatible – if they were Paul would never have told the charismaniac Corinthians to keep pursuing spiritual gifts. Love and prophecy: it can be a powerful combination, and it can be our experience.

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The Deadly Sin of Lust

And so we turn to the last of the seven deadly sins: Lust.

Through this series I’ve tried to demonstrate the importance of clarifying some terms – that greed is not the same as gluttony, that envy is different from jealousy. There can be a similar semantic problem with ‘lust’. I’ve heard too many talks about marriage in which the speaker (always a man) describes how he lusts after his wife. I know what communication is being attempted here: expressing a strong (sexual) desire for one’s wife, which helps keep the marriage spicy and prevent wandering thoughts and hands towards other women. The problem though is that lust is plain and simple the wrong word to express all this.

Desire (like jealousy) can be either good or bad, depending on the object towards which it is directed. Lust (like envy) is always bad. Lust is the illegitimate desire for something to which we are not entitled; which means it is actually impossible for me to lust after my wife, as to her I am entitled.

But misuse of the word is not so serious a problem as lust itself. We can all recount stories of people who have got into trouble because of lust – church leaders who have experienced ‘moral failure’; parents who have got divorced; the friend hooked on porn. We’ve all read the books and blogs warning us against the dangers of lust. And we are all confronted each day by a multitude of images and scenarios that can provoke us to lust.

The particular power of lust is that it can be aroused in an instant by images that pass before our eyes. In our pornified culture none of us can avoid looking at porn: some people don’t wrestle with sexual temptation to any great degree, but many of us do, and it doesn’t always take very much for lust to be stirred. Sometimes that glance of the eyes can lead to actual interaction of the glands. Samson ‘saw’ a prostitute and ended up sleeping with her (Judges 16:1). David saw Bathsheba and the rest is history (2 Sam. 11). Even if glance doesn’t lead to physical action, Jesus raised the stakes on this one by saying that to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery with her (Matt. 5:28). Every ‘Lusters Anonymous’ meeting would begin with the confession, “I am a pornographer and an adulterer”, and most of us would qualify for such a support group.

The real power of lust doesn’t lie in the connection between eye and brain and gonads, but in the comfort lust pretends to offer. It really is a question of the affections – a question of love. This is why John writes:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)

John makes it binary: God’s love, or lust.

Aquinas put it this way: “Man cannot live without joy; therefore, when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.” If we are not living in the Father’s love, lust will fill the vacuum.

The warfare attrition of the Christian life can make us vulnerable to lust. One of the most dangerous places we can find ourselves is in a place of boredom. It is very possible to be very busy, but still bored. It is very possible to be very busy ‘about the Lord’s work’ but to have lost love for God and be dying internally from boredom. Busy but bored people are prime candidates for the deadly sin of lust. Lust offers the promise of excitement.

Busy and tired people are also vulnerable to lust. Lust offers the promise of escape. A few minutes drifting away in sexual reverie, a quick google of something sexy… so easy, so tempting, so energising…

Busy and stressed people are also prone to lust. I’m sure some of those high-profile pastoral sexual implosions have been the result of overworked, overstressed men desperate to find a way out but unable to do so. If you are leading a large church or Christian ministry and no longer want to, how do you get out of it? It is not easy. Lust is the ultimate self-eject button. Develop a porn addiction, have an affair – hey it’s fun, and one day you’ll get caught, and then you’ll get kicked out. Job done.

Busy and self-important people are sheep to lusts shearing too. Lust is the desire for something to which we are not entitled, but self-important people feel entitled. Feeling entitled is deadly.

Like all the deadly sins, lust is often subtle and insidious. It is always crouching, ready to pounce, to get us when we least expect it. Accountability can help. Support groups can help. Learning to keep our spiritual armour permanently on certainly helps (Eph. 6:10-18). In the end, though, as with all the deadly sins, we will only walk free of lust when we are walking in love with God. Aquinas was right, we need joy – and Jesus promises it to us, a joy that offers more than the addiction of carnal pleasures.

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The Power of Presence

“Let us not give up meeting together,” the writer to the Hebrews urges, “…but let us encourage one another...”

In the 21st century, it is easier than ever to give up meeting together. Not only are our lives crowded with things to do (yes, I know we have far more labour-saving devices now, but how many members of the early church spent their lives ferrying the kids from ballet to band and Scouts to soccer practice?), but we are more easily able to ‘catch up’ electronically on what we’ve missed. A worship CD in the car and a podcast on while cooking the dinner and – hey presto! – church comes to me and fits in with my lifestyle.

Of course, these things are a God-send (literally) for those who are housebound either temporarily or permanently, and are a wonderful way for the isolated to still be able to access great teaching and raise their voices in song with other – albeit pre-recorded – ones.

This is helpful for those in need, and efficient and effective for the times when circumstances mean we miss the odd Sunday here and there, but efficiency isn’t everything.

I was on a train with a friend this weekend, winding slowly through the countryside, and she was getting increasingly frustrated by the inefficiency of all these small towns and villages spread so far apart, necessitating multiple stops for the train. Wouldn’t it be much more efficient, she argued, to group them all together so the train only had to stop once or twice? Yes, it would. It would be efficient for the trains, for schooling, for shops, for hospitals… but human beings aren’t designed for maximum efficiency. The reason people live in small villages is because they like the slower pace of life, the greater availability of space, the easier access to greenery and countryside, and the stronger sense of community. Human beings have needs wider and deeper than the efficient disposal of business.

Ironically, the reason I was on a train with this friend was that we had just been on a weekend away with our small group from church, the primary purpose of which had been to share fellowship and build community together. There was little agenda, and what there was got derailed by rugby games, extended conversations, glorious weather, and a really good pub. It was a very inefficient use of our time, but an immeasurably valuable one.

A friend of mine, Jake Belder, blogged recently about the new initiative his church leadership team has adopted this year of visiting every family in the congregation “so that we might better be able to pray for them, disciple them, and encourage them on in their faith”. He says:

The response we have received so far from our parishioners as they’ve welcomed us into their homes has been overwhelmingly positive, and we have been greatly encouraged by their openness, honesty, and desire for spiritual guidance. I find this particularly interesting because I recall having a conversation whilst in seminary with some fellow students who thought [the] practice outdated and unhelpful. They felt reticent about the idea of engaging in home visitation because it would infringe on the privacy of the members of the church and would implicitly communicate that the leadership of the church was seeking some sort of totalitarian dominance over the lives of their parishioners.

I can see how that would be a concern. As a culture we are growing ever more wary of the concept of authority – not least because of the way it has so often and so devastatingly been abused and misused in modern history – on both large and small scales.

Our understanding of what it is to be human, and what ‘the good life’ looks like also play a part. Jake continues:

Part of the reason some might hesitate to engage in such a practice is simply because they are living in a culture that incessantly bombards them with the message that they are autonomous individuals, subject only to their own authority and responsible only for themselves… The individual is the primary unit… [with] full responsibility over their life and spirituality, and the church is there to serve them and meet their felt needs.

The ultimate goal of a Westerner is autonomy and self-actualization, the freedom to pursue your own goals in your own way at your own pace. And this is one way in which Christianity is totally and utterly counter-cultural. I love that Jake and the other leaders of his church are doing this. It can’t be easy, and it must be incredibly time-consuming, but I’m willing to bet that – if it’s done well – it will turn out to be one of the most significant things those pastors invest their time in this year – If not in their lifetimes! I would love it if my church leaders did the same – especially now our congregation is growing/has grown beyond the stage where any one person can know everybody – there’s an increasing danger of any given individual never having an actual conversation with any of the leaders.

We’re the body of Christ, and we’re meant to be family. Family members – when the family is working well – are open and vulnerable with each other. They see each other’s faults and weaknesses. They challenge each other in dysfunction, support each other in trouble, and encourage each other in success. They earn this right through their love and care, and they gain the relevant knowledge through proximity and communication.

We in the ‘pews’ need to do our bit - showing up, getting there on time (ie early enough to greet a few people on the way in, not just in time to sneak into your seat while the opening worship song is under way), staying around afterwards for a cup of tea, making a point of speaking to our leaders rather than avoiding them, joining (and regularly attending) a small group, joining a serving team and generally participating in the community.

Pastoral visits may initially sound intrusive and paternalistic to a sceptical and independent culture, and may be time-consuming and intimidating for leaders, but they are a powerful way of building community and strengthening discipleship. Sharing a meal, or even a cup of coffee, together breaks down barriers and opens hearts and lives to one another in miraculous ways. And it is a wonderful witness to that sceptical world. I was talking recently to one of the leaders of the Alpha course in a church in Manhattan, and she said many people come to their church because they are hungry for community; they are drawn in by the love they see in the congregation, and over time start to want to get to know the God who binds together these disparate hearts, and that’s when they join the Alpha course.

What greater results could you want? Let us not give up meeting (and eating) together.

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No God In Heaven Unlike Jesus

There once was a day when it was dangerous to believe in Trinity.

Christianity, far from being a Western faith, thrived In North Africa and the Middle East, and through Turkey there were Christians aplenty, but the political leadership ensured that those who took their faith seriously could readily be martyred.

Then something happened to Constantine, and being a Christian became mainstream.

Division arose. Christian Choirs battled on the streets with their religious themes. Chief among the disruptive voices was Arius, pastor in Alexandria, who dared to question the long established message of the church and ask: ‘Is Jesus the eternal Son of the Father?’

Constantine gathered the good and the great. Over 300 turned up in Western Turkey, in a town called Nicea. Among them was St. Nicholas who, legend has it, punched the heretic on the nose. Go Santa.

Whatever Dan Brown says, Nicea didn’t invent the faith. They affirmed it against Arius’ objections.

In the room, observing, was Athanasius, a young man whose parents had dared to give him a name meaning ‘The Immortal.’

Athanasius took up the fight in the following years with much opposition. Arius named God ‘the Unoriginate’ and Athanasius notes:

Unoriginate is a word of the Greek philosophers who do not know the Son.1

Arius had got into bed with the thinking of the establishment and begun to define the God of the Christians from the thoughts of the Greeks. Athanasius continues:

Father is what the Son said: ‘I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me’ and, ‘He that has seen Me, has seen the Father,’ and ‘I and the Father are One;’ but nowhere is He found to call the Father Unoriginate.

The Greeks and heretical Arius dishonour the Son by defining God from creation instead of from the Son, says Athanasius:

If they had any concern at all for reverent speaking and the honour due to the Father, they would acknowledge and call God Father…it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.

Arius looks out the window and sees a God of power. Athanasius joins with the church throughout history to look at the Son and see the love of his Father.

#1 Prayer is Triune.

The Son teaches us to pray, not saying: ‘When you pray, say, O God Unoriginate,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, in heaven’ Luke 11:2.

#2 Baptism is Triune.

We are not baptised into the name of the Unoriginate and originate, but into the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are made sons in the Son and use the name Father. The Arian name for God is fantasy.


The Western churches have tended to return to the vomit of Arius and start with ‘one God’ with various ‘omni’ attributes, among which is Trinity. Count the pages before the chapter on Trinity in your Systematic Theology.

The Eastern churches, for all their foibles, have, more helpfully, tended to start with the three, and see them in perfect loving unity.

The East and the West divided in 1054, theologically at least, over the Filioque, a clause in the Nicene creed about whether the Spirit comes from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son. It says something about how un-Triune we are that most Western/Protestant/Evangelicals wouldn’t know which side of that divide they fall or on why it would make any difference.

#3 Revelation is Triune.

God speaks in creation, but how? Of power – yes but more with Trinitarian shape, like the life of the Son…of seeds that die to give life, of light that overcomes darkness, the sun less a nuclear inferno and more a bridegroom. The glory of God is in the face of the Christ.

Even “The Christ” is a name that evokes Trinity for Christ means The Anointed One. Anointed with the Spirit. Anointed by the Father. In this way God reveals himself, in person, through people, and in the Scriptures, the Father’s Spirit-breathed words concerning his Son to make us wise for salvation through faith the Son who was anointed with the Spirit by the Father.

#4 Atonement is Triune.

In self-giving love the Trinity acts in unity to send the Son to bring us home. The Father, Son and Spirit are all involved in this.

#5 Christian life is Triune.

In union with the Son a Christian participates in the Spirit-filled life of the Son.

Do all religions lead to God? Which God do you mean? This isn’t about a ticket to heaven, but sharing in the life of a divine family. Without Jesus how exactly do you think you’re getting to sonship?

Christians enter communion with the Triune God, mutually indwelling. We know the Father, in his Son, by his Spirit, and are sent out by their self-giving love. Love is not remote or impersonal but came in person and suffered with and for us.

Trinity at the centre.

It’s more Arian than Christian to begin with a generic god and fill that god up with the right attributes… much richer to start with the Son of the Father.

Athanasius left a mixed legacy. He wrote a biography of his friend Anthony, a monk, and gave rise to Monasticism – a new way to take your faith seriously when you can’t be a martyr. But he was also followed by the Cappadocian Fathers whose Athanasian Creed says:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic [Universal] Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity…

In the complex world of omni-gods Trinity is another incomprehensible attribute. In Athanasius’ world it’s where everything begins.

Mark tells the gospel of the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father (Mark 1:1). Luke can’t help but speak of the Son of the Father page after page. John tells of the Word of the Father who is his beloved Son.

No fear. No confusion. In some generations, to believe in Trinity is dangerous, in others it’s safer, but always: Trinity is the essential. It’s the difference.  For, as Mike Reeves puts it, “there is no god in heaven who is unlike Jesus.”2



    1. All Athanasius quotes from Against the Arians, 1:33-34.
    2. Quote from Mike’s session at Commission Students & 20s event 2014.

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Chalke vs Wilson: The Final Round

The fourth and final part of the debate between Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson on whether we have misread the Bible is now online. Here it is:

For me this was perhaps the least satisfying of the four segments - 25 minutes is just not sufficient time to do the subject justice. For instance, the foundational issue of what is the purpose of sex (something we’ve referenced a number of times on this blog) wasn’t discussed at all, and without settling that foundation it is very difficult to discuss the meaning of marriage at all, and thus the legitimacy or otherwise of same-sex relationships.

In terms of the overall impact of the debate there was probably no single knock out blow. Who you think ‘won’ will probably be based on which side of the arguments you were on in the first place, but I think some important issues were aired in a helpful way. Both Steve and Andrew are highly engaging, articulate and intelligent, so they make good debating partners. Clearly Andrew is the better read and more scholarly informed of the two, but Steve has an incredible wealth of experience and a more impressive track record of social engagement. Of course, from my side of the fence Andrew’s arguments were by far the most convincing, and I think it is a tragedy that Steve has shifted so far from a biblically defensible position. The most amusing thing was how embarrassed Steve looked every time an episode was introduced with a, “in this weeks debate…” when clearly the whole thing was filmed in one go. Anyway, in case you missed them, here are the first three rounds of the debate:

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The Deadly Sins of Greed and Gluttony

Of all the deadly sins, greed is possible the most difficult to admit.

‘fessing up to our anger or our lust is one thing, but to acknowledge we are greedy, well, that is another matter. I think most of us probably consider greed to be the sin we are least likely to fall into, especially when the “us” I am thinking of are Christians. Most of us probably consider ourselves to be generous, and not to consider ourselves as rich, so greed wouldn’t seem to be our problem.

In part, our reluctance to recognise the reality of greed in our lives is a consequence of living in an affluent western society. Greed is probably the sin we are most blind to because of the abundance we take for granted. Often it takes a visit to a developing world slum, or to receive a visitor from the developing world to open our eyes. What looks like normal life to us can certainly appear greedy to those who come from a very different context.

A good definition of greed is that it is placing ultimate value in possessions and finding identity in them. Put that way, probably very many of us in the west are guilty of it. Think of the messages communicated to us in scores of advertisements every day. Think of the power of consumer brands. Consider the way in which shopping is a recreational activity for so many of us.

We tend to react against this. “Greedy? Not me! I just like shopping!” But go on, think about it, admit it. I know greed can get hold of me.

Gluttony and greed are often confused but are two distinctive vices. Where greed places ultimate value and identity in possessions gluttony in its strictest sense is excessive eating or drinking. In our current confused culture I would argue that gluttony manifests itself in other forms though – not only excessive eating and drinking but excessive attention to food and drink; which means the rake thin person can be as much a glutton as the sumo-sized. It is fashionable for thin, attractive and trendy bloggers to throw out broad condemnations of the gluttonous – “Why go on about same-sex marriage all the time when your church is full of fat people?!” Such ‘arguments’ are worthy only of contempt, revealing more about the smug superiority of their authors than offering any penetrating insight or pastoral help.

I posted fairly extensively on gluttony a few weeks back so don’t need to say much more here, other than that the real identifying factor that it is gluttony we are dealing with, rather than some other problem, is that the glutton is resolutely self-focussed. This is the key distinction between gluttony (which is bad) and feasting (which is good). Feasting is a community activity. It is usually in response to an event or occasion that the community wants to acknowledge (birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries) and is enjoyed with other members of the community. By contrast, the glutton is only interested in his own desires and needs. There is no community consideration for the glutton.

Evidence that greed could be an area of sinful weakness for us can be found in the zeal with which we guard our stuff. If we are reluctant to open our homes, uneasy about lending things we own to other people, or over-sensitive if things we possess get lost or damaged, then we are probably slaves to greed. It is easy to mask this under a pretence of good-stewardship; but that is only a mask. Another sign of greed is to analyse our thought patterns (and our internet history): where do our thoughts tend to drift? And what does this reveal about where we place our security and hope, and where we find our identity?

The warfare attrition of the Christian life can make us vulnerable to both greed and gluttony because in the face of difficulty we crave comfort. The greedy person will seek comfort in their possessions; the glutton in food and drink. Of course, neither greed nor gluttony are a good strategy to find lasting happiness: “Why do your spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:2) Rather, like the psalmist, we should look to God, that he might, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (Ps. 90:14)

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Ambiguous Truth for the Perhaps of Life

Proverbs are great. They're short, memorable and often appear in groups and parallels. They’re about shaping the heart – what will you love? What will ensnare you?1 You have to chew on them to draw out their meaning for life.

Proverbs are generally true. But, not always true in every case and in every moment.

Such Wisdom Literature isn’t limited to the book of Proverbs; we find it in the New Testament, too. Paul writes proverbially in his final letter to Timothy. Like Proverbs, it is a book written from (spiritual) father to son.2 “You then my son…” (2 Tim 2:1)

He calls for strength in the grace that is in Christ Jesus and in a repeated rallying cry to be prepared to suffer, he offers three proverbs to chew over. Reflect on them, Timothy, and the Lord will give you understanding. Understanding can be a grace-gift that follows some chewing on the words.

These proverbs of Paul come as a three:

No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. (2 Timothy 2:4-6)

Three images that get some wary. Is this an anti-grace lesson in rule-keeping to win? Hardly - the previous verses are all about grace for a start! No, they’re generally true proverbial sayings that all make the same basic point with some nuance.

• Generally, if you turn your back on civilian pleasures you’ll please your enlisting officer in the army.
• Generally, if you keep the rules you may get to win in your sport.
• Generally, if you get up early and work hard on your land you’ll reap a harvest.

There are exceptions to each of these but proverbially speaking they are true. Similarly the ‘promise’ that the godly get persecuted is more proverb than a promise. Not all godly people get opposed, and not all the time, and not all favour indicates ungodliness…  Perhaps.

Paul’s letter to his spiritual son is full of wisdom talk. Timothy is to be wise by contrast to fools who mimic the faith and appear godly. The Scriptures “enwisen him for salvation through faith in Christ.” Knocking the heart into shape, turning us from ourselves to Christ.

And so do these three proverbs in 2 Timothy 2.

• Die to your own pursuits and you’ll live.
• Die to your freedom and you can win.
• Die to your sleep and you can harvest.

Death followed by life. As he goes on to say “I endure… for glory” and “If we die with him, we will also reign with him” and “if we endure with him we will reign with him…”

It’s about union with Christ - if you’re in the plane you’ll get where the plane gets to.3 As for the King, so for his people.

For David and Jesus and Paul and Timothy (and us) the story is one of suffering followed by a crown. Death followed by resurrection.

In view of the resurrection of Jesus we live in death for life in his resurrection. Not as fools, not saying that our “resurrection has already happened.” That sets gangrenous expectations for life. Such an over-realised discipleship can’t handle sin or suffering.

Chewing on wisdom, being led by the Scriptures to faith in Christ, helps us not to be discouraged by the presence of sin or suffering in our lives… nor to be overly victorious in the sunnier seasons. 

Christian life is, as Michael Bird observes, both cruciformity and anastasisity. The cross and the crown. This and that, and mostly this but sometimes that.

Having a Proverb in your mouth to chew on helps you in the ambiguity and “perhaps”4 of ordinary life.


  • 1) 2 Timothy 2:26

  • 2) See The New Testament use of the Old Testament (GK Beale) for the observations of allusions to Proverbs in 2 Timothy 2.

  • 3) See, One Forever (Rory Shiner) for more on this.

  • 4) 2 Timothy 2:25


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On Formalism, Apocalyptic and the Grand Budapest Hotel

I like symmetry, though I rarely achieve it myself. I’m not the tidiest of people, truth be told. Obsessive about some things and a little slapdash about others. But I appreciate symmetry when I see it. When others achieve it and offer it up for me to marvel at.

I love moments in art where sound and sight match up more perfectly than I could ever imagine. Soundtrack and action coalesce like a well-aged meat and an expertly selected wine. So beautiful that the chef and sommelier can’t resist a mutual congratulation.

I adore films where you feel that every hue of every visible fragment has been hand-selected; not a single colour left to chance. Each and every gesture meticulously studied, and yet deployed as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

I find myself frustrated by the fact that I have just begun four consecutive paragraphs with the letter ‘I’. There is a slightly obsessive part to me, though it’s not dominant. I also feel guilty about the fact that I know I’m quite likely to start the next two paragraphs in exactly the same way.

I love the films of Wes Anderson.

I vividly remember the first time I watched The Life Aquatic, finding myself mesmerized by its hypnotic underwater scenes and suitably quirky Portuguese-Bowie-infused soundtrack. Then came the delight of catching up on a brilliant back catalogue: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket. And ever since, I have awaited each new release with eager anticipation; Fantastic Mr Fox brought a childhood favourite to life in a fresh and unexpected way; Moonrise Kingdom was a quirky ray of light that burst delightfully into my 2012. In fact, the only one of Anderson’s films that hasn’t yet ‘clicked’ for me is The Darjeeling Limited, but I think it deserves a second chance when I can find a spare few hours and the perfect single malt…

So it was with great anticipation that I got tickets for the opening weekend of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Some criticise Anderson’s films for being formulaic; for valuing style over substance; for being beautiful but ineffectual. I couldn’t disagree more. Formalism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it is a mistake to assume that lines, colours and OCD-cinematography are all there is to a Wes Anderson film. Arguably the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s most well-rounded yet. But there is something hauntingly powerful about the fine attention to detail and the painstakingly-perfect framing of every shot. Through his films Anderson invites us into a world that is concurrently both recognisable and yet quite unreal. And he invites us to relook at our own world with fresh eyes.

That said, I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on what it is that appeals to me about Anderson’s world. So I found J.K.A. Smith’s post ‘Reframing the Imagination: On Wes Anderson’s Formalism’ and the article he linked to by Michael Chabon, ‘The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson’ hugely clarifying.

Here are a few paragraphs that particularly leapt out to me from the two posts. First, Chabon, summarised by Smith:

‘“The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises,” Chabon observes, “that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research ‘childhood.’” It is a difficult education.  “Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.  The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?”  Some hunker down atop the pile of brokenness and “make do;” others take out their frustration by breaking the fragments that remain.  But “some people,” he says, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”  Wes Anderson, he argues, is one of those people.’

Then Smith himself:

‘I would suggest that Anderson’s films tell the truth on the register of the imagination in ways that we might not realize, or even be able to articulate, and yet nonetheless feel.  A Wes Anderson film plays the strings of your imagination in a way that has you sort of grinning and longing and smiling and mourning, all for reasons you know not why; and yet you can’t stop. 


The unapologetic artifice of Anderson’s frame is an aesthetic form of hope—a form that bears witness to order, harmony, perhaps even peace. Despite the chaos that is captured in the frame, the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control. And that is a truth that we absorb on the register of the imagination.’

Beautifully put.

But after watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, it dawned on me that there is another genre that leaps to mind when I consider Anderson’s filmmaking; that of apocalyptic.

There is something about the highly-stylised nature of his work that reminds me of the feeling I get when turning the pages of Ezekiel or Revelation. Each scene is so deliberately-depicted that it seems kind of beautiful, even when the picture is one of immense brokenness. You find yourself having an emotional reaction to the form, even when narrative or meaning feel elusive. The complexity of the genre makes ‘comprehension’ difficult, and yet there is ‘feeling’ in abundance.

Do you know what I mean?

I taught some lectures on Revelation two years ago, and found myself strangely captivated by the description of the throne room in Revelation 4. I remember putting pen to paper and drawing out what it may have looked like, in a series of rough, unskilled, geometric scribbles! As the shapes came together, a feeling of awe began to hit home. Thrones, elders, lampstands, and creatures arranged in a meticulous order. Maybe I read the symmetry into Revelation 4 as a manifestation of my own need for order? But as I drew, I found that the formal elegance of it began to make sense of shards. Competing themes and powers came together in an elaborate dance.

When teaching the lecture, I had the chairs in the room set out as per my drawing, to the amusement of the attendees and bemusement of the conference centre staff, who were used to a rather more predictable theatre style! But from form came meaning and as I invited people to walk among the chairs, taking seats where they wished and adopting the characters of those upon whose thrones they sat, we got a feeling of what the passage was about, even if it had been previously hard to articulate. The immersive experience of exploring the form gave rise to a sense of cohesion and order, as if powers were being drawn into submission before the one to whom every knee must bow. 

As Smith puts it, despite the chaos that is present in the frame – trumpets, flashings, lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder – the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control.

The Lamb is on the Throne.

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I’m not at all sure about lent.

Everyone seems to be doing it. As well as the traditional ‘no chocolate for six weeks’ there are multitudes swearing off social media, which I guess is the contemporary equivalent of chocolate. Our own dear departed Andrew counts among this number.

The virtues of lent are obvious. Demonstrating that we are not enslaved to something by choosing not to use it for a time is good. Spiritual disciplines are good. Prayer and fasting are good. Taking time to think about the cross of Christ is very good: on the strength of Liam’s recommendation I have ordered a copy of ‘The Final Days of Jesus’.

I am also by temperament and theology inclined to an appreciation of seasonality. I have a fairly robust theology of the Sabbath and I like to adjust the pattern of my life in response to the changes of season, ‘from seedtime to harvest’. I am reasonably disciplined about such things as the time I get up in the morning and the exercise I take. I have been blogging through the seven deadly sins for goodness sake. I am a natural lent candidate! And yet, and yet… To me lent can feel just a bit too good, good…goody-two-shoes.

So it was with some enjoyment that I read this ‘vent about lent’ (even if the typeface caused me anything but joy. HT Reformation 21); just at I enjoyed St Stuffed Shirt’s advice on twitter:

The opportunity created by lent for Phariseeism is exceeding great. De-toxing is one thing, but self-justification through self-effort is dung. The gospel brings freedom, and that includes a freedom not to conform to societal pressures. I can tweet or not tweet, drink or not drink, without gaining or losing spiritual merit. There are disciplines I choose to employ because I find them helpful for my spiritual, emotional or physical health, but the standard I am measured against is not whether I keep this feast or that day – such things are mere shadows (Col. 2: 16-17). Rather my justification is in Christ. So it is with joy and freedom that I keep a bar of quality chocolate in the drawer of my desk, lent or no lent – after all, chocolate is for life, not just for Easter.

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Chalke vs Wilson, Round 3

If you are finding lent a struggle without your normal Wilson fix, here is the the third part of Andrew's debate with Steve Chalke:

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The Deadly Sin of Sloth

Of all the books of the Bible, it is the book of Proverbs that most focuses on the deadly sin of sloth. Both by way of negative example (“As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed” Pr. 26:14) and by positive (“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise” Pr. 6:6) Proverbs rings loud with the dangers of laziness (“Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” Pr. 19:15).

Sloth is the kind of inactivity which leads to poverty and to depression. Sloth produces feelings of worthlessness and the tendency to make excuses. Of course, the difficulty here is to distinguish between what is actual depression rather than mere sluggardliness. Our spiritual forebears tried to untangle this distinction through the concept of acedia, the opposite of spiritual joy (there is a helpful explanation of this on Wikipedia) and what we can say is that depression and sloth tend to feed one another. By succumbing to the deadly sin of sloth we lay ourselves more open to the crippling effects of depression. In this sense, depression is a spiritual matter, as well as a medical one.

While not all depressives are sluggards, not all sluggards are depressed: some are just lazy! While they may not be depressed, usually these individuals are not happy either, because – perversely – slothful behaviour makes life less comfortable rather than easier (“Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks” Eccl. 10:18).

As well as trying to distinguish between sloth and depression, we need to make the much clearer distinction between sloth and Sabbath. Rest is not the same thing as laziness. Genuine rest is active in a way that sloth is not. Rest is focussed on something, on reconnecting with God and other people and in recharging depleted spiritual, emotional and physical energy levels. An example and a distinction – to get a good nights sleep is not lazy; to stay in bed all day is.

What, then, are the signs that we may be falling prey to the sin of sloth?

Procrastination is a key indicator. If we are forever putting-off-till-tomorrow what needs to be done today the chances are high that we are living a sluggardly life. A more subtle evidence of procrastination is when we always leave the hardest job till tomorrow rather than dealing it with it now. A great strategy for overcoming sloth and being effective in life is to do the most unpleasant task of any day (whether it is making a difficult phone call or emptying the bins) as the first task of the day. Get the worst thing over and done with first, and everything else feels so much easier! (A helpful little book on this theme is Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy.)

An even more subtle sign of sloth is what Bill Hybels describes as ‘selective sluggardliness’. Selective sluggardliness is when we are very diligent in every area of life and other people generally think of us as energetic and productive, but there is one important area in which we are bone idle. It might be that you are diligent about all kinds of things, but neglectful of your physical health (this is the example Hybels gives in the case of his father). It might be that you are diligent in everything, except managing your personal finances. Or perhaps you are completely undisciplined about learning peoples names. No matter what the area of sluggardliness, if it is an important enough area, it will undermine all diligence demonstrated in other areas. You might get away with it for a long time, hiding it away as your dirty little secret, but it will find you out in the end.

Of course, probably the greatest evidence of sloth is your internet history. Facebook, the sluggards friend!

Sloth is not simply a matter of personal productiveness; it is a spiritual matter. The warfare attrition of the Christian life makes us vulnerable to sloth because we get tired. Spiritual weariness (acedia again) can cause us to retreat into the sluggards shell. This is why Paul urges the Galatians not to “grow weary in doing good” (Gal. 6:9) but to keep looking for the reward that will be ours in Christ. Spiritual conservatism can also make us lazy. One of Jesus’ most frightening parables is the case of the talents, and the masters rebuke of the servant who was too timid to invest his money: “You wicked and slothful servant!” (Mt. 25:26).

Like all the other deadly sins, sloth has to be battled against. The trouble is, if you are a sloth you will probably be too lazy to engage in the fight! You’ll think you can put it off till tomorrow… This is why our connection to the body of Christ is so vital. Paul instructed the Thessalonians to, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thes. 5:14). Distinguishing weakness from faintheartedness from idleness can be a pastoral challenge, but it is not one we should shirk. And where we see an idle brother we all have the responsibility to warn him. A failure to do so compounds the sin, and leads to spiritual torpor.

Go on, eat that frog. You’ll feel much better when you do.

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The Final Days of Jesus

Easter is coming. If you’re anything like me, it creeps up on you. I used to measure its proximity by the appearance of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs in the shops, but since they now arrive on Boxing Day, I’m left spending most of my year with no idea what season it is!

As I’ve said before, I’ve really felt the benefit these past few years of having a build up to Easter. Personally, it’s helped me connect with the story in a devotional way. Often I find I’m rushing through seasons, constantly looking to what’s next. And taking time to consciously slow down and walk step by step through the story of Holy Week has been a nourishing practice.

But also along with those in my church community, I’ve found it helpful to pause and have a moment to reflect on the Easter message; through a preparatory sermon series, a series of holy week devotionals, a Good Friday service and finally an Easter Sunday celebration including baptisms. I preached on Easter Sunday two years ago and will do again this year, and I know I preach the resurrection better when people are primed for it.

Consequently, Lent is an important time for me. And yet, the challenge to keep reflections fresh during this period is not an easy one to manage. The past two years I’ve written daily devotionals for our church during Holy Week, and I must admit that the prospect of doing that again for a third year is daunting. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? How can I phrase or apply it in a way that still packs the punch it deserves to?

So I was really excited to receive my copy of The Final Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor. As soon as I heard about it I suspected it would be a fresh and helpful book, and I really wasn’t disappointed. Seeing either author’s name on the front cover of a book would have been a giveaway that it was going to be worth a read. I’ve often valued Köstenberger’s clear-thinking, and in particular his writings on the gospels. And Justin Taylor is a very sensible, sharp writer who manages to communicate huge amounts of content in snappy and accessible ways. Seeing both their names side by side made picking up this book a no-brainer.

The book is broken down into chapters around each of the days of Jesus’ final week; the most important week of the most important man who ever lived. Step by step, the authors walk through the events of Holy Week, harmonising the gospel accounts to paint a vivid picture of the moments leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The authors really get the balance of detail right – no mean feat in a book like this. Not so much as to leave your head swimming, or distract from the heart and emotion of the events; not so little as to make you feel they’re glossing over the big questions. They don’t allow themselves to get bogged down in some of the debates that occupy too many pages of commentaries. So some people might feel they come away with niggling questions about why they placed certain events in the order they did; but there are plenty of commentaries (not least those by Köstenberger!) that can fill in the gaps. Their suggested reading lists are helpful, and their explanations for why they’ve made certain assumptions are succinct and strong.

The descriptions of places, people and practices are snappy and illuminating, everything is referenced well and the maps and charts manage to accentuate the story rather than making it seem cold.

I came away feeling I had a better sense of how the narratives weave together, and highlighted some pages I will go back to again and again.

If you’re looking for a book to guide you through Lent, I really recommend The Final Days of Jesus; and the Kindle edition is under £4. It may be that you want to start now and work through at a gradual pace on the run up to Easter. It may be that you’d like to work through it on the days of Holy Week. Either would work well; though bear in mind if you’re going through it on Easter Week that you’ll need to leave aside a significant chunk of Good Friday given that the ‘Friday’ chapter (rightly) constitutes about 35% of the book. The bonus is, you get off lightly on Wednesday!

I’m teaching a couple of days on the gospels in two weeks’ time, and beginning to prepare for Easter, and this book has given me the help I needed to come back to these well-known stories with fresh eyes. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

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An Electronic Detox

I've been blogging here for three years, posting at least twice a week, including over Christmas and during the summer holidays. That's nothing compared to the über-bloggers like Scot McKnight (three a *day*) or Tim Challies (one original article and a bunch of links every day), but it feels like quite a lot of work. So I'm taking a few weeks off blogging and tweeting for Lent, for three reasons. Firstly, Lent is a good time to give stuff up, particularly if you suspect it might have power over you and you'd struggle without it, so there's that. Secondly, after reading Kevin DeYoung's book Crazy Busy, I resolved at the start of the year to blog less, because I had too many things on, and this seems like a good way of acting on that. And thirdly, I've been reading Dave Eggers' book The Circle, and it's been freaking me out. Anyway: the other guys will still be blogging here, but I'll be back after Easter.

In the meantime, look out for the rest of my debates with Steve Chalke over at Premier TV, a fuller length response article in Christianity magazine, and (if you’re interested in new apologetics content) the “Big Objections” series I’m doing at Kings. Or then again, you might be doing an electronic detox yourself ...

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ChurchCuterie: The Art of Pragmatic Ecclesiology

In a classic episode of The West Wing, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry declares: “There are two things in this world you never want to let people see how you make ‘em – laws and sausages.” But in recent days a new wave of McGarry-ites have added a third item to this list – ‘baptism services.’

It appears that one or two people have taken umbrage to a particular American megachurch who recently published their very own guide to engineering ‘spontaneous baptisms.’ Apparently it painted them in a less-than-authentic light and gave the impression that any kind of manipulative practices are acceptable if it grows your church.

Well, leaving aside the fact that there are few things more fascinating than charcuterie - and I could happily recommend a good few documentaries on the fine art of sausage making – I can’t help but disagree with McGarry and his followers. Which of us hasn’t employed some light subterfuge to expand our church attendance figures? All of us have rounded up the odd figure from time to time, I’m sure. And if we’ve learnt cunning techniques to fake mass-baptisms, why not publish our findings and share the wealth? As Jesus said somewhere: freely you’ve deceived; freely give! (I think. I may have paraphrased.)

So I thought I would offer a few ‘pragmatic church tips’ of my own. These are all tried and tested methods that have elicited enormous growth in my own church, which is now well into the upper-double-figures!

On Counting

As we all know, one of the most significant measures of church health is the number of people in your pews. Quantity beats quality every time. So consequently, the art of counting is an essential staple of any pastor’s skillset.

Some pastors, believing it to be beneath them, delegate ‘the count’ to another lesser member of staff, or even a volunteer. But alas, they can hardly be relied on to count correctly and in my experience, numbers given to me by well-meaning demi-counters tend to be significantly lower than my own. And thus incorrect.

I’m sure you’re already well skilled in this area, so far be it from me to teach old dogs to suck granny’s eggs, as the idiom goes. But here are a couple of tips for how to count successfully in a way that accentuates your church attendance.

Double your numbers by counting one body and one soul per attendee. Or become a trichotomist for even more dramatic growth! And while you’re at it, don’t forget to top up your numbers by at least 5% for those who are ‘with you in spirit’ if not in body.

When counting, also ensure you include reflections, people on video screens, and also unborn children. If you’re in any doubt, assume that most married women are pregnant and your numbers will soar.

Another couple of key figures to keep an eye on are your web-visitors and podcast downloads. Set your staff computers to deny cookies, so you can register each refresh as a new visit. And consider employing temps to repeatedly download your sermons on a Monday morning. Minimum wage for dramatically increased podcast stats? Bargain!

On Baptisms

Boost the numbers that pass through your hallowed waters, by trying few of these cunning tips.

Consider all previous baptisms invalid and demand re-baptism. Someone may have been christened, confirmed and given believer’s baptism, but if it happened in a different denomination, encourage them to get re-baptised in your church. Just to be sure. 

Adjust the temperature levels in the pool and the room to make the baptistery seem like the most pleasant place to be. Hot auditorium + chilled pool or freezing auditorium + heated pool = a lot of new baptism candidates. Or at your evening service, crank up the bubbles and turn it into a Jacuzzi party, complete with a few cool beers (which you can serve with nachos and pass off as a trendy alternative communion). Permit swimwear to the degree that your conscience will allow. It’s adiaphora in my opinion, but I suspect there may be a link between what you allow the girls to wear and how many men want to hang out in the bubbling-baptistery. (Let the reader understand!)

If you own one of those portable baptisteries, why not consider lending it out to hospitals for use as a birthing pool. Any birth that takes place in it (natural or spiritual) goes on the tally chart. Why not permit multiple-baptism on behalf of the dead (cf. 1 Cor 15:29) and widen it our to include the death of pets and plants. Guaranteed revival!

On Communion

The average sip of communion wine is 8ml per person. Obviously the more wine you get through, the bigger the crowd, right?

Well, you can fiddle those stats by encouraging larger gulps, thus giving the impression of a significantly larger church. Opt for a claggy type of bread, forcing people to crave more liquid. Or ensure that your wine is alcoholic and allow the youth to take communion for guaranteed extra-consumption. Why not try bussing in visitors from your local fat camp and watch the number of bread-servings go through the roof!

I’m sure that’s enough to get you started. Follow these tips and you’ll be leading a megachurch within months. Oh, and if you really want to revitalise your children’s work, check out my new colouring worksheets. 

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Keller, Pascal and Preaching the Gospel

"Men despise religion," wrote Blaise Pascal. "They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is." This three stage approach to evangelism - showing religion is worthy of respect, then showing it is desirable, and only then showing that it is true - is incredibly wise, and probably even more so in our pluralistic world than in Pascal's. Tim Keller explains:

One of the most interesting of Pascal’s Pensees is the one quoted above. Here Pascal looks holistically at how to present the Christian message to those who do not believe it. He begins with the psychology of non-belief. He says that people are not objective about religion (here meaning Christianity). They really despise it and don’t want it to be true—yet fear it may be true. Some of these are fair-minded people who see good, well-thought-out reasons Christianity is not true. Others are not so fair-minded, and they just vilify and caricature it. But no one is neutral. People know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control, and they will not be able to live any way they wish. So they are rooting for it not to be true, and are more than willing to accept any objections to the faith they hear.

How should Christians respond? Pascal thinks there are basically three stages to bringing someone on the way to faith. First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. They especially enjoy hearing about professing Christians who are intemperate, irrational, and hypocritical—this confirms them in their non-belief. When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer’s character—comes across as well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.

After this, Pascal says, we should be somewhat more proactive. “Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true.” We might object to the term “make” and suggest that Christianity is already attractive, but that’s to miss Pascal’s point. Of course he isn’t saying we should make Christianity into something it’s not; rather, we should reveal, point out, and expose its existing features. But the phrase “make good men wish it were true” gets across that this takes determination and ingenuity. We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.

I’m glad Pascal calls for this because, understandably, in these conversations we want to talk about sin and the barrier it creates between God and us. Pascal isn’t arguing against that. Certainly he isn’t telling us to hide that. But do we take time to talk about the manifold and astonishing blessings of salvation? Do we give time and effort to explaining the new birth; our new name and identity; adoption into God’s family; the experience of God’s love and beholding Christ’s glory; the slow but radical change in our character; a growing freedom from our past and peace in our present; power and meaning in the face of suffering; membership in a new, universal, multi-racial counter-cultural community; a mission to do justice and mercy on the earth; guidance from and personal fellowship with God himself; relationships of love that go on forever; the promise of our own future perfection and glorious beauty; complete confidence in the face of death; and the new heavens and new earth, a perfectly restored material world?

If we do this, Pascal gives us a very specific outcome to shoot for. If we’ve pointed out such things in an effective way, then some (though surely not all) will say, “If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful. Yes, it would be great if it were true. But of course Christianity isn’t. What a shame!”

Only then will most people will sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. Now Pascal says to “show that it is [true].” If they have not been brought through stage 1 (being disarmed and surprised by the lives and speech of believers) and stage 2 (seeing the great and attractive promises of God in Christ), their eyes will simply glaze over if you begin talking about “the evidence for the resurrection.” They will still expect Christianity to be at best useless and at worst a threat. But if Christianity has begun to make emotional and cultural sense they may listen to a sustained discussion of why it makes logical and rational sense. By “emotional sense” I mean that Christianity must be shown to be fill holes and answer questions and account for phenomena in the personal, inward, heart realm. By “cultural sense” I mean that Christianity must be shown to have the resources to powerfully address our social problems and explain human social behavior.

Only if their imagination is captured will most people give a fair hearing to the strong arguments for the truth of Christianity. Let’s appeal to heart and imagination as well as to reason as we speak publicly about our faith in Jesus.

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The Deadly Sin of Anger

Anger is a special emotion: it has so many facets.

Anger can be a great fuel for achievement. Lance Armstrong talks about how it was anger that created his overwhelming resolve to win bike races (and dope, lie and destroy the reputations of others in the process). Anger can simmer, barely detectable but always ready to boil over. Anger can be comical, as well as threatening. Anger is also very personal and gets expressed in ways that are peculiar to our own personality type. One of my expressions of anger is my PILTP list. People I’d like to punch. There shouldn’t be anyone on that list. It’s not a list that should even exist. But it has a way of finding its way into my mind.

And that’s the thing about anger – it tends to be an expression of our sin. One of the peculiarities of anger, though, is that as well as being a deadly sin it can also be a virtue. Amongst the deadly sins anger is unique in this regard. We see virtuous anger displayed by God. God can be angry righteously (even if Steve Chalke isn’t happy about this); an anger with no impurity to it. There are things that should make us angry too. If we never get angry about the impact of sin on the world there is probably something wrong with our moral compass.

Even while there are things to get righteously angry over, the danger is that generally our anger isn’t like God’s. Our anger tends not to be righteous but sinful. We might feel our anger is righteous, but in reality it is very difficult to be righteously angry! More often than not our anger is due to our selfishness, our pride, and our envy. The people who wind up on my PILTP list are those who have caused me offence in some way, towards whom I feel an urge to get even. That is not a godly urge.

The signs of anger are usually obvious. We all know people who are angry, and we tend to steer clear of them, which only makes them more angry! It is usually easy to spot anger in others, but we can be quite blind to it in ourselves. This is why anger is deadly, because as with the other deadly sins we are prone to deceive ourselves and describe as “righteous” what is evil or as “deserved” what is illicit.

The deadly sin of anger is often a child of the idol of self. This is our desire to be in control and in charge, and anger is what we experience when that desire is thwarted. I know this is how anger gets hold of me. It happens because I am a pastor and a parent, and as a pastor and parent I expect to be in control! A righteous sense of responsibility can all too easily be hijacked by an ungodly assumption of certain rights and privileges.

The warfare attrition of the Christian life makes us vulnerable to anger because we can feel things spinning out of our control. I know my most sickening experiences of anger have been caused by things I feel I should be able to control but which have instead slipped beyond me. Of course, the point is that it is not actually those incidences that are responsible for my anger, but my own sinful response to them. Try telling that to an angry person though.

Angry people may get ahead but they tend to wreck havoc and don’t have many friends; just ask Lance Armstrong. The antidote to anger is a robust and joyful confidence in the sovereignty of God. When we not only recognise that God is in control but are genuinely glad about this the idol of self gets toppled in our lives and self-righteous anger dissipates. Rather than being poisoned by the intoxicating power of anger we need to let the peace of God dwell in our hearts and live by his grace.

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The Jesus Lens, or the Jesus Tea-Strainer?

I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve's presentation was his continual reference to "the Jesus lens". In his view, the Bible should be read through "the Jesus lens", that is to say, in the light of God's self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text - say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger - figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. Here’s a few examples of things Jesus said that wouldn’t fit through the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)

“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)

“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)

“What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:9)

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48)

“But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:48-51)

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot - they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all - so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17:26-30)

“But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.” (Luke 19:27)

That’s just a sample, of course. As such, I don’t think Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and co are reading the Bible through a Jesus lens, as much as they are reading Jesus through a selective, progressive postmodern lens, and then reading the rest of the Bible through that. The end result, ironically, is that while the Jesus we find in the Gospels fits well with the rest of the scriptures - as you might expect, given that he inspired them - neither the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Bible, fit particularly well with the pastiche of Jesus that the Red Letter guys want to promote. When all is said and done, the biblical Jesus cannot be squeezed thorough the fine mesh of the progressive Jesus tea-strainer. Given the choice, we’re probably better off with the biblical one.

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Is Atheism Irrational?

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a superb interview with philosopher Alvin Plantinga, on the question of whether atheism is irrational. The content, and the succinctness, of Plantinga's answers, as well as his credibility as a philosopher (he is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, a former president of the American Philosophical Association, and is widely credited with undermining the logical problem of evil in the 1970s), make it a very worthwhile read. Here's an excerpt:

Gary Gutting: A recent survey by PhilPapers, the online philosophy index, says that 62 percent of philosophers are atheists (with another 11 percent “inclined” to the view). Do you think the philosophical literature provides critiques of theism strong enough to warrant their views? Or do you think philosophers’ atheism is due to factors other than rational analysis?

Alvin Plantinga: If 62 percent of philosophers are atheists, then the proportion of atheists among philosophers is much greater than (indeed, is nearly twice as great as) the proportion of atheists among academics generally. (I take atheism to be the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions.) Do philosophers know something here that these other academics don’t know? What could it be? Philosophers, as opposed to other academics, are often professionally concerned with the theistic arguments — arguments for the existence of God. My guess is that a considerable majority of philosophers, both believers and unbelievers, reject these arguments as unsound.

Still, that’s not nearly sufficient for atheism. In the British newspaper The Independent, the scientist Richard Dawkins was recently asked the following question: “If you died and arrived at the gates of heaven, what would you say to God to justify your lifelong atheism?” His response: “I’d quote Bertrand Russell: ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’” But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism.

In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?

A.P.: Russell’s idea, I take it, is we don’t really have any evidence against teapotism, but we don’t need any; the absence of evidence is evidence of absence, and is enough to support a-teapotism. We don’t need any positive evidence against it to be justified in a-teapotism; and perhaps the same is true of theism.

I disagree: Clearly we have a great deal of evidence against teapotism. For example, as far as we know, the only way a teapot could have gotten into orbit around the sun would be if some country with sufficiently developed space-shot capabilities had shot this pot into orbit. No country with such capabilities is sufficiently frivolous to waste its resources by trying to send a teapot into orbit. Furthermore, if some country had done so, it would have been all over the news; we would certainly have heard about it. But we haven’t. And so on. There is plenty of evidence against teapotism. So if, à la Russell, theism is like teapotism, the atheist, to be justified, would (like the a-teapotist) have to have powerful evidence against theism.

G.G.: But isn’t there also plenty of evidence against theism — above all, the amount of evil in a world allegedly made by an all-good, all-powerful God?

A.P.: The so-called “problem of evil” would presumably be the strongest (and maybe the only) evidence against theism. It does indeed have some strength; it makes sense to think that the probability of theism, given the existence of all the suffering and evil our world contains, is fairly low. But of course there are also arguments for theism. Indeed, there are at least a couple of dozen good theistic arguments. So the atheist would have to try to synthesize and balance the probabilities. This isn’t at all easy to do, but it’s pretty obvious that the result wouldn’t anywhere nearly support straight-out atheism as opposed to agnosticism.

G.G.: But when you say “good theistic arguments,” you don’t mean arguments that are decisive — for example, good enough to convince any rational person who understands them.

A.P.: I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.

Nevertheless, I think there are a large number — maybe a couple of dozen — of pretty good theistic arguments. None is conclusive, but each, or at any rate the whole bunch taken together, is about as strong as philosophical arguments ordinarily get.

G.G.: Could you give an example of such an argument?

AP: One presently rather popular argument: fine-tuning. Scientists tell us that there are many properties our universe displays such that if they were even slightly different from what they are in fact, life, or at least our kind of life, would not be possible. The universe seems to be fine-tuned for life. For example, if the force of the Big Bang had been different by one part in 10 to the 60th, life of our sort would not have been possible. The same goes for the ratio of the gravitational force to the force driving the expansion of the universe: If it had been even slightly different, our kind of life would not have been possible. In fact the universe seems to be fine-tuned, not just for life, but for intelligent life. This fine-tuning is vastly more likely given theism than given atheism.

G.G.: But even if this fine-tuning argument (or some similar argument) convinces someone that God exists, doesn’t it fall far short of what at least Christian theism asserts, namely the existence of an all-perfect God? Since the world isn’t perfect, why would we need a perfect being to explain the world or any feature of it?

A.P.: I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

G.G.: O.K., but in any case, isn’t the theist on thin ice in suggesting the need for God as an explanation of the universe? There’s always the possibility that we’ll find a scientific account that explains what we claimed only God could explain. After all, that’s what happened when Darwin developed his theory of evolution. In fact, isn’t a major support for atheism the very fact that we no longer need God to explain the world?

A.P.: Some atheists seem to think that a sufficient reason for atheism is the fact (as they say) that we no longer need God to explain natural phenomena — lightning and thunder for example. We now have science.

As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.

G.G.: So, what are the further grounds for believing in God, the reasons that make atheism unjustified?

A.P.: The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience. Many people of very many different cultures have thought themselves in experiential touch with a being worthy of worship. They believe that there is such a person, but not because of the explanatory prowess of such belief. Or maybe there is something like Calvin’s sensus divinitatis. Indeed, if theism is true, then very likely there is something like the sensus divinitatis. So claiming that the only sensible ground for belief in God is the explanatory quality of such belief is substantially equivalent to assuming atheism.

G.G.: If, then, there isn’t evidence to support atheism, why do you think so many philosophers — presumably highly rational people — are atheists?

AP: I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have any special knowledge here. Still, there are some possible explanations. Thomas Nagel, a terrific philosopher and an unusually perceptive atheist, says he simply doesn’t want there to be any such person as God. And it isn’t hard to see why. For one thing, there would be what some would think was an intolerable invasion of privacy: God would know my every thought long before I thought it. For another, my actions and even my thoughts would be a constant subject of judgment and evaluation.

Basically, these come down to the serious limitation of human autonomy posed by theism. This desire for autonomy can reach very substantial proportions, as with the German philosopher Heidegger, who, according to Richard Rorty, felt guilty for living in a universe he had not himself created. Now there’s a tender conscience! But even a less monumental desire for autonomy can perhaps also motivate atheism.

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The Deadly Sin of Envy

In late-modern society we have performed a strange trick of inversion whereby jealousy is generally seen as a bad thing whereas to be envious is socially acceptable. Jealousy in relationships is perceived as a destructive thing, whereas we routinely speak of envying this and envying that; and our entire political and economic model is designed to work on the stimulation of envy.

Biblically speaking it is the other way around. Jealousy is actually a positive emotion, in that it means one is protective of an exclusive relationship. Thus the frequent Old Testament references to God being jealous for his people and not wanting them to prostitute themselves to other gods. Similarly, husbands and wives are to be jealous of one another in the sense that they guard and protect the exclusivity of their marriage. Seen from this perspective, jealousy can be good; but envy is always bad.

Some of this is simply semantics: As one of my teenage daughters might say, “You’re well jel of my intellect/athleticism/looks”, when really she means, “You are displaying envy about areas of life in which I supersede you.” We shouldn’t get too hung up on semantics, but when it comes to dissecting the deadly sins it is important we are able to distinguish between jealousy (which can be good) and envy (which is always bad). John of Damascus’ axiom that, “Envy is sorrow in the face of your neighbours good” is a helpful way of clarifying this.

Jealousy guards what is rightfully ours, whereas envy desires what is not ours and resents someone else possessing it. God is jealous, but he is never envious. Envy is a self-destructive sin, because, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones” (Proverbs 14:30).

What, then, are signs that we may be in danger of this deadly sin?

Both our attitudes and actions will be the giveaway. If we find it easier to be negative about others than positive it is likely we have envy issues. Similarly, if we have a tendency to assume that the possessions or life situation of others are superior to our own we are displaying traits of envy. If we agree every time we hear a politician saying, “You should be better off than you are!” we might be nursing envy. And if we respond to every advertisement with an emotional reaction of, “It’s not fair, I should have that!” we are most likely dying of envy.

In the battle that is the Christian life we can be vulnerable to envy because it is easy to imagine everyone else is having a much easier time of it than are we. This kind of assumption is revealed when we hear of another church that has (say) had a huge offering for (say) a building project and our knee-jerk response is, “They must be a much wealthier church than us”, rather than, “They must be a really generous church who have dug deep into God’s grace – what can I learn from that?”

Church leaders can be very vulnerable to envy when they compare their own churches and ministries with others. It is all too easy to grieve over the success of other leaders and churches rather than celebrating them. The through-gritted-teeth, “That’s really great” can come more easily than the open-hearted, “Hallelujah!”

Many of us are also prone to the envious turn of mind that says, “If I were ‘there’ everything would be different.” We imagine that if we were in a different church, a different town, a different country, had a different spouse, or different kids, life would be so much better for us! Of course, the fatal flaw in that line of reasoning is that no matter where I live, which church I go to, or who I am married to, I am still me, and it is me who is the problem! If we fail to grasp that, it is likely that envy will grasp us.

Envy really sucks. It rots the bones. Don’t do it.

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Luke’s (Almost Scribal) Portrait of Jesus

Everybody knows the Gospel writers have different interests, and present their portrait of Jesus accordingly. Matthew is into the Torah and fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, Luke loves Gentiles, the poor and women, and so on. But I admit to never having noticed the differences between Luke's portrait of Jesus, in which Jesus is portrayed as having an almost scribal level of scriptural expertise, and Mark and Matthew's rather simpler, more everyday carpenter. That difference, and its relationship to Luke's famous comment in Acts 4:13, was the subject of a very interesting research seminar I've just been to, by Professor Chris Keith from St Mary's Twickenham.

The paper was entitled, “The Oddity of the Reference to Jesus in Acts 4:13b.” (I believe it has already sold out in paperback, before you ask.) As often happens with research seminars, I found the statement of the problem more compelling than the proposed solution, and continue to take Acts 4:13 in the same way many of you do: as a statement about the surprising boldness that comes from having been with Jesus, rather than (as many scholars take it) a statement about the similarity between the disciples’ and Jesus’ lack of education. But the central premise - that Luke deliberately adapts Mark’s (and Matthew’s) account to emphasise Jesus’ competence in the scriptures - was firmly established. I’d never even thought about it before. For instance:

-  When commenting on the authority of Jesus, Luke removes the phrase “and not as their scribes” which appears in the other Gospels (4:32; cf. Mark 1:22; Matt 7:29).
- In Mark and Matthew, Jesus is rejected on the basis that he is a carpenter, or a builder (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55), a career which is closely linked to the charge of ignorance (Sirach 38:24-39:2 contrasts the tektōn with the scribe, explaining that the former “do not attain eminence in the public ekklēsia”; see also 4Q266 5.2.1-4). In Luke, on the other hand, Nazareth takes offence at Jesus as the son of Joseph, rather than specifically as a carpenter, and at the content of his message. In fact, from Luke alone, you wouldn’t even know Jesus was a carpenter, probably because carpenters were non-scribal by definition.
- Luke begins his Gospel with a priestly family who are related to Jesus, and begins the story of Jesus with him mastering the scriptures in the temple as a boy, which the other Gospels omit (2:46-47).
- Luke ends the story of Jesus with him teaching the disciples everything in the scriptures, and marvelling at their inability to grasp it (24:25-27, 44-47), which the other Gospels omit.
- Matthew and Mark have the scribes implying that Jesus has no biblical training. By contrast, Luke 4:16 says that Jesus had a “custom” of teaching in the synagogues.

In other words, Luke adapts Mark whenever Mark draws a sharp distinction between Jesus and other religious teachers. Mark emphasises the dissimilarities; Luke emphasises the similarities. Mark cares about the uniquely stand-alone nature of Jesus’ teaching authority; Luke cares about his biblical expertise and competence. Chris Keith’s proposed explanation for this fact is that, in writing Acts, Luke was repeatedly confronted with the scribal and scriptural expertise of Paul, and he therefore wrote his Gospel in such a way as to stress that Jesus was an even better interpreter of the Bible than Paul was. But whatever the explanation, the observation - that Luke presents Jesus as an expert in the scriptures - seems accurate. Fascinating, right?

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The Twenty Commandments?

Someone emailed me the following question this week, which they had received from an inquisitive atheist friend: In Exodus 20, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses subsequently smashes them after the golden calf incident, and when he returns to pick up a new set in Exodus 34, the list is somewhat different. Given that God claims that the words are the same as the previous ones, (Exodus 34:1) how can we explain this contradiction?

It’s an important question, and one I first remember coming across a few years ago in an article from the late Christopher Hitchens. So here’s the answer I gave. See what you make of it:

To my mind, this question is only really a problem if you assume that the text from Exodus 34:17 onwards is meant to be taken as the content of the Ten Commandments. But I think we have good reason to assume that it is not.

The reason we know these verses are not the Ten Commandments is because in v1 God says that He will write the Ten Commandments down and in v27 he tells Moses to write ‘these words.’ That suggests that the words written down by Moses cannot be the same ones as referenced in verse 1, but rather some other words.

Now of course, some people will simply claim that this is another contradiction in the text – the author couldn’t make up his mind about whether Moses or God wrote the words – but only a seriously dumb writer would allow such a contradiction to stand in such a short piece of text, and it’s an impressive form of chronological snobbery to assume that people in the ancient times were too thick to spot such an obvious contradiction!

To my mind the best answer to the question is that God wrote down the Ten Commandments, which were the same as in Exodus 20 (and not listed here in this passage) and He instructed Moses to write these extra words from v17 onwards. So in v28, God – not Moses – is the “he” who wrote the words of the Ten Commandments.

This squares with how the author of Deuteronomy describes the event. In Deuteronomy 4:12-13 he describes the first encounter on Sinai in which God wrote the Commandments on the tablets and then in 10:1-5 he describes the second encounter. In chapter 10 he emphasises that God promised to write the words (v2; cf. Ex 34:1) and that God – not Moses – did write the words (v4; cf. Ex 34:28). He also stresses that they were in the same writing as before, and that they were the same as the words that had been given on the day when God had spoken on the mountain in the midst of fire. The author of Deuteronomy thinks they were exactly the same, which means that the words written by Moses were different.

On top of that, Moses was up there for 40 days (Exodus 34:28) so it’s pretty reasonable to assume that they may have had some other stuff to chat about on top of the original Ten Commandments!

So – what do you make of my answer? How would you have responded? And is there anything I’ve missed?

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The Role of Desire in the Gender Debate

Here's a fascinating comment from Joel Willitts over at Euangelion. In explaining his change of view from a complementarian to an egalitarian position, he very honestly admits the role played by desire in the whole discussion:

In the end, I could be wrong on my interpretation of the data of the texts. They are difficult. And I’m willing even still to leave the question open, although I’m quite confident there will remain a deadlocked [sic] until Jesus returns. I believe there is no high ground in this discussion when it comes to the evidence. So, in large measure I’ve decided that I just don’t want to be on the “limitation” side of this debate. When I stand before God, I would rather have committed the “sin” of wrongly interpreting very difficult passages and be for women in ministry, than to be for the limiting interpretation of the passages and commit the “sin” of restricting the role women can play in the church.

In short: if in doubt, I want to hold the view that places the fewest limitations on people. Fair enough. For my part, if in doubt, I want to hold the view that stands in closest continuity with the church through history, and the view that errs on the side of obeying, rather than not, New Testament imperatives. But acknowledging the role that preferences, friendships, ecclesiastical backgrounds and even personalities play in this conversation is certainly helpful. I applaud Joel Willitts for his clarity of thought on this one.

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Seven Deadly Sins

One of my father’s catch-phrases is, “the Christian life is not like a battle; it is a battle.” Recently Grace and I spoke on this theme at a leaders weekend and how the battle of the Christian life can make us vulnerable to sin. For those of us in pastoral ministry there are particular challenges, frustrations, and disappointments that come with the role; but every Christian is engaged in a fight, whether or not they carry particular leadership responsibilities. While we can overstate the difficulties of our lives (and we should often remind ourselves that 21st century life in the West is almost unimaginably easier on multiple levels than it is has been for almost everyone, almost everywhere for most of history) the attrition of spiritual warfare can leave us feeling beaten up and vulnerable to sin.

We approached this issue through the grid of the seven deadly sins. Those of us from a protestant, evangelical, background are probably not very familiar with this method of appraising sin – or consider it a piece of Roman Catholic flummery. However, I have found the seven a helpful way in which to bring my own weakness and need of God’s grace into focus.

We’ll start with the daddy of all sins: Pride

Pride is the root sin, the fundamental sin, the original sin. In Augustinian expression it is love of self placed above love for God. All sin has pride at its root, as choosing to sin always expresses a lack of faith – a lack of love – for God. It was pride (love of self) that set satan against God, and it was pride that caused Adam and Eve to disobey God in the garden. It is that same sin of Adam that lies at the heart of the human condition still. Because pride is the root sin it is the one sin that God directly opposes: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Signs of pride
Pride is the slyest of all sins and can have us in its coils without us even knowing it. Warning signs to look out for include:
Atheism: I guess that not many atheists visit this blog, but it is possible for us to be functional atheists. Functional atheism is when we go for minutes, hours or days without deliberate reliance on God and recognition of his claim of priority over us. 
Being controlling: Even godly, grace-oriented Christians can become controlling. It happens subtly and is expressed in all kinds of ways, but reflects the fundamental assertion that, “things need to be done my way” and as such is a manifestation of pride.
Being overly opinionated: Pride manifests itself in this way when we regard disagreement as personal affront and refuse to accept advice and help. It is when we are quick to see the faults in others, and point them out!
Being presumptuous: Pride catches us when we believe we can do anything, solve any problem, be impervious to any sin.
Being boastful: This tends to take the form of ‘selective updating’ and is the kind of thing that happens when in response to the question, How large is your church? a church leader responds with the number who came to the carol service, and not with the number who were there on the May Bank Holiday Sunday.
Being anxious: Pride can trip us up if we are over-concerned about the opinions of others. We might think that feeling low about ourselves means pride isn’t the problem, but it could be! This is why counselling techniques aimed at ‘raising self-esteem’ so often backfire – the result is simply to reinforce our pride. We don’t fix the problems of our souls by loving ourselves more, but by loving God more.

The spiritual battle of Christian living makes us vulnerable to pride because when life is tough we can easily develop a, “Us vs Them” mentality. We start to see other people as the source of our problems, rather than the mis-directed attitudes of our own hearts. Difficulty inclines us to ‘pom-pom-pom’ (‘poor old me’) and to imagine ourselves the victim of some kind of conspiracy, rather than receiving with gratitude the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Pride is deadly. It needs to be identified, and slaughtered, or it will be the death of us.

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The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

I haven't been around long enough to tell you what the centre of British evangelicalism was a generation ago. I'm sure any description of the movement would have included John Stott, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Dick Lucas and a few other well-known names, but there would have been sufficient practical, ecclesiological and missiological diversity to make pinning down a centre pretty difficult. Stott was probably the most widely respected figure, but an awful lot of those who read his books and admired his sermons would not have much wanted to join him on Sundays at All Souls, Langham Place, since although they shared his theology and respected his leadership, they were hardly influenced (if at all) by his style, methodology, philosophy of ministry and so on. In these days of mass communication, replicable courses and large conferences, however, it is far easier to identify the new centre of the evangelical movement (at least, the white evangelical movement) in Britain, to see how the channels of influence work, and to consider the implications. Because the new centre of British evangelicalism is Holy Trinity Brompton.

Here’s how it works. People become Christians on Alpha, which usually introduces them not just to the gospel, but also to a particular form of middle-class, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelicalism (which is increasingly representative of the sorts of churches they will find in their area, whether they are Anglican or not, including mine). If they’re young, they go to Soul Survivor (teenagers) or Momentum (students and 20s), led by fellow Anglican, charismatic, non-confessional, low church, generic evangelical Mike Pilavachi. If they’re not, they go on HTB’s marriage course, recently trailered enthusiastically by the Guardian, or perhaps their parenting course. If they’re involved in worship leading, they connect with Worship Central somehow, either through a conference or through their online resources, and this gradually influences their corporate singing times in an HTB-ish direction (partly because several of the UK’s leading Christian songwriters are based there). If they want to go deeper in prayer, they link up with Pete Greig’s 24-7 prayer, now also based there. If they want to go deeper in the scriptures, they can download the hugely popular Bible in One Year app for free, and use that. If they’re involved in leadership, of any sort, they can go to the Leadership Conference at the Albert Hall, where they will hear from Cardinals and Archbishops, business leaders and former Prime Ministers, as well as Megachurch pastors of the Warren/Hybels sort. If they feel called to lead a church themselves, they can get trained at rapidly growing St Mellitus College - recently the subject of an extremely positive op-ed in the Telegraph - and then go church planting. I doubt there’s a church in the world whose programmes, conferences and courses are more widespread than HTB’s.

So here’s what I mean by the “centre” of British evangelicalism. I don’t mean the “centre” as in the centre of a wheel, whereby all spokes flow in and out of HTB. There are sizeable pockets of evangelicalism, especially in the black church and in more confessionally wired and Reformed-leaning circles, in which Alpha isn’t used and the rest of HTB’s courses and conferences makes very little impact. I mean “centre” as in the centre circle of a football pitch: the reasonably large, obvious bit in the middle, as far away from all extremes as you can get, from which it is possible to influence most of the game, and which, if you want to play with everyone else, you have to interact with on a regular basis. In that sense, I think, HTB is clearly in the centre, and far more central than any other institutions or individuals I’m aware of. (While Tom Wright, probably the most influential individual in the British church, affects the way huge numbers of British Christians think about scripture, he has far less impact on their practice - corporate worship, church planting, prayer, church leadership, evangelism, and so on - than HTB. If you wanted to push the football field analogy, he’s more like the fourth official: the one everyone looks to after they’ve made their decisions, to see what he thinks they should have done).

I should probably make a few declarations of interest at this point. I am a huge, huge HTB fan. My godfather and his wife developed and actually named the Alpha course when they were curates with Nicky in the early 1990s; we have run dozens of Alpha courses as a church, and my wife and I met on one. My brother-in-law works for them in Brompton. I’ve spoken at Worship Central events both in the UK and overseas, and have deliberately modelled aspects of the courses I run on the example I saw there from Tim Hughes, Al Gordon and others. In the last few days, I’ve plugged their Bible-reading app, linked to their leadership conference resources, sung their songs and publicly championed their courses. So I’m not saying any of this as an impartial observer, let alone a critic. Far from it.

But I do think it’s worth thinking through three corollaries of HTB’s increasing centrality, both for individual churches (like mine) and for evangelicalism as a whole.

First, contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly becoming aligned by shared conferences, courses and choruses, rather than confessions, creeds or catechisms. There was a time when self-identification would primarily be a function of denominational affiliation, but for most evangelicals this is no longer true; the immensely broad reach of events like New Wine, Soul Survivor, Spring Harvest and HTB’s Leadership Conference, let alone that of Alpha or “Here I Am To Worship”, crosses so many institutional boundaries that it makes many of those boundaries look somewhat arcane. Fuelled no doubt by mass media, cheap travel and increased disposable income, it has become far, far easier for Christians from different ecclesiological contexts to interact with each other, and many of them have discovered that they have more in common than their grandparents would have realised: they sing, pray, evangelise and organise meetings in very similar ways, despite the theological differences their forefathers debated or even separated over. If you wanted to split the evangelical churches in my town into like-minded groups, you’d get a more accurate picture if you divided them by the evangelistic course they use (Alpha for most, Christianity Explored for those who find Alpha too floaty, individualistic or charismatic, and nothing at all for the churches that aren’t that fussed about preaching the gospel) than by the denominational family they come from (Anglican / Baptist / Methodist / Free). The increasing centrality of HTB is obviously more a result than a cause of this realignment, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.

Second, this apparently trivial practical reality has huge theological implications. In previous generations, the issues which marked out churches as different from each other were rooted in post-Reformation disagreements over the nature, identity and right ordering of the church: polity, sacramental theology, liturgy and of course baptism. Those were the sorts of things denominations, and local churches, really needed to agree on, so they were clarified and articulated. But they are not the things that conference hosts, or course developers, or songwriters need to agree on. You can happily pitch up at the HTB Leadership Conference without having any idea how the people there approach church government or baptism, because the conference has no elders and no baptisms. But the conference does have to make decisions (say) about who gets to speak, and on what, and how corporate worship is to happen - so there has to be a theological position on gender roles, or the way to expound scripture, or the use of charismatic gifts, or whatever. Spring Harvest is neither Presbyterian nor congregational, but it is emphatically egalitarian; Alpha is neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but it is clearly charismatic; and so on. Consequently, the things over which one must agree to run a course or a conference, even when they are relatively trivial, can appear to be much more important things to define than things like sacraments or soteriology, when in reality the opposite is usually true. If we’re running a conference together, we can agree to disagree on baptism, and church polity, but not on whether women can teach men or whether we should have ministry times. This elevates the perceived importance of the latter.

Third, the centrality of HTB also reflects decreasing levels of doctrinal clarity in British evangelicalism as a whole. Perhaps it’s the breadth of Alpha’s appeal, perhaps it’s the elevation of Justin Welby, perhaps it’s the genial personalities and inspirational styles of the key leaders (Nicky Gumbel’s tweets resemble, and even quote, Joyce Meyer an awful lot of the time), or perhaps it’s something else entirely - but it seems to me that externally, HTB has avoided taking a “position” on a number of controversial contemporary issues (much more so than the centre of American evangelicalism in the last generation, Billy Graham, and in this one, Rick Warren), and that their doctrinal boundaries internally are much less defined than most local churches’ (they have numerous staff members and even worship leaders, let alone church members, who do not agree with each other on all sorts of doctrinal issues, including some that Christians in previous generations have died over, and allow huge theological diversity to be represented by speakers in their church, conferences and Focus weekends). How many people who run Alpha or the Marriage Course, I wonder, know what view (if any) HTB have of penal substitution, or hell, or predestination, or gay marriage, or any number of other contentious issues in the contemporary church? (Egalitarianism, as mentioned above, is probably the exception that proves the rule). Most evangelicals will wonder why it matters: if someone has a good course, or runs a good conference, what difference does it make what they think about penal substitution, hell, gender roles or gay marriage? This, of course, is exactly the point I’m making - that the centrality of HTB reflects the lack of doctrinal clarity in evangelicalism - but if you’re stuck for an answer, ask anyone who still uses the Nooma videos.

As such, HTB represents British evangelicalism’s friendly face: biblical but not dogmatic, evangelistic but not ranty, activist but not politicised, Anglican but not really, centred rather than boundaried. Hard not to like, right? And certainly more likely to unite evangelicals, and to get favourable write-ups from cultural gatekeepers in the Telegraph or the Guardian, than the hardline confessional types. As such, if HTB represents the new centre of British evangelicalism, then nearly everybody wins. If the abiding perception of a Christian in the UK becomes an articulate, genial, charitable, charismatic, missional London professional with a year-round golf tan, then journalists may be slightly less condescending, and the rest of us may seem slightly less ridiculous, than has historically been the case - and we can all get on with what we’re really here for.

No doubt some will have their grumbles. That’s what always happens, not least in the UK, where tall poppy syndrome is unusually acute. For my part, the chief concern (if that word is not too strong) surrounds some of the theological influences which wash through HTB, although I’d be the first to admit that they haven’t come to any public expression yet. (The most we might say so far is that HTB has maintained a deliberate silence on some contemporary debates - and of which local church could we not say that?) Other than a mild theological concern, though, I think the increasing centrality of HTB is great news, and should be celebrated.

All those in favour?

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Any Questions?

Jürgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom of God is a challenging read. It isn’t challenging because it’s particularly difficult to read, but because it poses questions that I hadn’t given much thought to before. I find some of Moltmann’s theology to be thought provokingly brilliant, whereas at other times he can say things that seem a bit off the ball. One thing that can’t be said, though, is that his theology is mundane. Rather than going into the complexities of Moltmann’s Trinitarian theology as a whole, I will just pose two of these questions that he raises. I can’t decide why I haven’t given them much attention previously; it could be that others are kept awake by them every night whilst I’ve been blissfully ignorant! It might be that they are unimportant questions, or it might be that they are uniquely important questions to Moltmann because of the direction of the rest of his theological schema (this seems quite likely). The question is, are they important questions in and of themselves, and if so, how do we go about answering them?

They are what I would deem properly theological questions; that is, they’re not questions that arise from any sort of objective standpoint, but ones that come from a confessional belief in God as Trinity. The raw material, of course, is scripture; but scripture does not, I would argue at least, provide definitive answers (I understand that this might invoke some proof texting!). These particular questions may not be answerable, and some would say that such things are meant to be understood as being within the realm of mystery. Nevertheless, I think that as questions they are fundamentally important, not least because they draw us into the very life of God. Anyway, the two questions are:

    1. Is the Father the Father of the Spirit, or only the Father of the Son?
    2. Does God have a future?

Although I won’t try to answer the questions, it’s worth highlighting a few things. With respect to the question of the nature of the Father’s Fatherhood, Moltmann has in mind the question of how much the Son and the Spirit are to be differentiated from one another. If the Father is the Father of the Spirit, does that not turn the Spirit into just another version of the Son, albeit a Spiritual version? So any potential answer must reckon with this concern. In relation to the question about God’s future, Moltmann is not asking whether the idea of God has a future, nor whether God is about to cease existing, but literally whether God has a future. Moltmann is driven here by wanting to consider the implications of saying that God enters into time in the divine Son and is therefore asking to what extent time becomes part of God. He is aiming to tread the difficult path of valuing the reality of the incarnation whilst also preserving God’s freedom (which it’s questionable whether he does in the case of freedom). Our responses, therefore, should probably reckon with these concerns also. And, as soon as we begin to answer questions such as these, other difficult questions arise, particularly in the tricky area of Trinitarian theology (e.g. To what extent is the Father the Father because he is the Father or because of the nature of his relations?).

So, over to you. Are these questions important? Are there any adequate answers? Or should we just retreat into the enclave of mystery? One last question therefore: are questions more helpful in our enquiring after the nature of God than answers?

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Tom, Tom and the Way Forward

Tom Schreiner is one of the sharpest Reformed scholars around, and in Credo magazine he's given a thirty page review of Tom Wright's big Paul book. It's the best review I've seen, summarising the content and argument fairly, highlighting points of critique, and (crucially) affirming much of Wright's work without making the whole review about the nuances of justification language. In this particularly helpful section, he summarises the big story according to Wright - which for me, as I imagine for many, is the most valuable contribution of Wright's scholarship - and unlike many Reformed reviewers, happily affirms it:

... I, for one, think that the basic story Wright draws is right. Israel was in exile (i.e., the promises weren’t fulfilled) because they had failed to keep the Torah. The curses of the covenant fell on Israel because of her disobedience. Israel believed that the Torah, restoration of Israel. Of course, the story doesn’t begin with Israel in exile, but with the covenant, the promises given to Abraham, the promise that the entire world would be blessed in and through Abraham and his descendants. In other words, God would fulfill his promise through the covenant, by virtue of his covenant given to them by God, was the means by which the world would receive blessing. But, as Wright so aptly puts it, Israel found out that it too was in Adam. Israel couldn’t be the solution to the world’s problems since Israel too was part of the problem. The evil wasn’t only out there in the Gentile world; it was also inside the Jewish world. Sin isn’t just a Gentile problem or a Jewish problem but a human problem.

I believe Wright is also correct in saying that the solution to the problem is in the Messiah Jesus. He is on target in saying that Messiah is not just a proper name in Paul. Believers are incorporated into Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord. Jesus, then, is the true Israel, and those who are members of Abraham’s family, those who are the circumcision, belong to Jesus. Hence, both Jews and Gentiles now form the single family of God, reconciled to God and reconciled to one another. The Pauline story is about Jesus being the Lord of the world, and hence all other gods and demons are shown to be frauds. Jesus rules at God’s right hand, and hence the new creation has dawned, even though it still must be consummated. The church of Jesus is to live out that lordship with love and grace, as it awaits the renewal of creation. Wright reminds us that the church impacts the world when the world sees its holiness and unity. When the church lives in such a way, it attests that it is the new temple, the place where the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus dwell.

You can read the whole thing here.

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To ink or not to ink

In a theological discussion with some friends about how we are to interpret cultural symbols in the New Testament (head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 being the prime example) we got onto the subject of tattoos. What is the symbolism of tattoos? And are they appropriate for Christians?

This is a subject I have pondered off and on over the past few years. Tattoos used to be unusual – available only in the dodgier quarters of larger towns, and sported only by sailors or bikers. Now they are ubiquitous, and available on every high street. Central to what is going on in 1 Corinthians is that the people of God are not to be rebels, and tattoos were certainly once regarded as expressions of rebellion; which alone might have been enough to make Christians cautious about getting inked. With ubiquity, the air of rebellion has dispelled. To have a tattoo now is about as rebellious as wearing a shirt without a tie. I don’t have a tattoo. The closest I’ve come to one is when I was away from home for three weeks and thought it might be amusing to have my wife’s name inked somewhere on my person as a surprise for her on my return. I went as far as entering a tattoo parlour, but then decided against proceeding when I was told what it would cost. My sense of humour only extends so far.

My general sense is that tattoos are adiaphora – a matter of spiritual indifference which the individual can indulge in or not according to taste and conscience. My personal taste is that tattoos often come under the ‘silly’ category and I can begin to sound like my mother with, ‘what will that look like when you are 60 and your skin is saggy’ type comments. Godly men who I love and respect have tattoos. Some of them look quite cool; others are bizarre – and if you insist on getting Greek or Hebrew (or even English) words inked on prominent parts of your body it is definitely worth checking and rechecking you have got the spelling right. A typo on a blog is rectifiable; a tattoo is for ever. (There are some wonderful examples here)

But apart from personal preference, is there anything theological we can say about tattoos? (Don’t even get me started on shocking hermeneutical leaps made from Revelation 19:16.)

Last year I posted about the gnosticism that shapes how we think about our bodies and how understanding the hope of the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:23) addresses this. My working theory is that we should do only those things that align with resurrection life in redeemed bodies; or, at least, the Christian hope of redemption will profoundly affect how we understand the body. Contemporary gnosticism perceives the inner-self, the psyche, as the real ‘me’. The real me is in some way trapped by the body. Thus the body becomes merely a canvas on which to express my inner self: The real me is fixed while the body is plastic. In stark contrast to this gnosticism, the biblical hope is that our resurrection bodies will be permanent, not plastic, and there will be no division between body and soul. Perfectly united to Christ our body/soul union will also be perfect.

Working along these lines I would suggest that getting a tattoo is in some degree a reflection of a gnostic rejection of the body. It is treating the body as plastic, as something to be changed at will, in order to reflect a deeper, more meaningful interior reality. The very permanence of the ink (as opposed to a change of hairstyle or clothing) is a grasping after the permanence we feel in our souls; a permanence our bodies appear to deny us.

In our fallen world bad things happen to bodies. People are born with disabilities, suffer accidents and illness. Fingers get chopped off; lungs develop cancer; limbs are misshapen. It seems inconceivable to me that these things align with resurrection life. Christ bears the marks of his sufferings in his resurrection body (John 20:26) but these are the marks of triumph! Surely our redeemed bodies will not be marred by amputated digits, cancers or disfigurement – rather, what is sown in weakness will be raised in power! (1 Cor 15:43) Similarly, is it conceivable that we will carry tattoos into the resurrection?

My (tentative) suggestion is that getting a tattoo does not align with resurrection life, and therefore is something one destined for resurrection life should exercise a certain caution in. Of course, the argument could be made that if our bodies are going to be made new then bearing a tattoo now is neither here nor there – that if Jesus likes the ink he’ll let us keep it and if he doesn’t it will be eternally erased! But the weakness of this argument is that I wouldn’t deliberately and unnecessarily amputate my finger, or infect myself with cancer – not only because to do so would be morally wrong now, but because doing so does not align with the life to come.

I know how the response to this will go, “What about pierced ears then? Do they align with resurrection life? If so, how many piercings? How is a tattoo any different?” And on and on. This is why, as I said, my general sense is that tattoos are adiaphora. But I also think the gnostic problem is a serious one, and people of the resurrection should reflect seriously upon it, before the needle bites.

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Are You Talking To Me?

After church the other day, one of the mums was telling me how her son had been desperate to come to church a few weeks earlier, because it was the day before his entrance exam to the local Boys’ School, and he wanted the church to pray for him. His Sunday School teacher quickly reminded him that he doesn’t have to be in church to pray, and the preacher’s prayers don’t have any more power or significance than his own. While this is true, and worth remembering, it got me thinking about the place of praying for one another, audibly, in each other’s presence.

Go into your room, close the door…
In Matthew 6, Jesus recommends private, rather than public prayer, yet this is clearly not a hard-and-fast commandment, since he himself employed the public prayer on at least one occasion:

Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me. (John 11: 41-42)

Later James instructs his readers:

Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14)

So when should you pray ‘in secret’, and when in public? It seems that part of the answer is to do with motivation – the Matthew 6 instruction was to contrast true prayer with that of ‘the hypocrites’ who

love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. (Matt 6:5)

The issue is not so much whether others can hear you, but why you want them to hear you. The hypocrites wanted to receive praise from men because of their holiness, Jesus wanted to demonstrate God’s power to others in order to build them up (and also to demonstrate that he was who he said he was).

Elsewhere, Jesus told his listeners that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19) It’s hard to agree if you are unaware of what the other is asking!

So there are clearly occasions on which it is acceptable to use prayer to speak to the people around you as much as to God. What are some good uses of this technique, and what are some of the pitfalls to be avoided?

For encouragement
There is something encouraging about being prayed for, audibly and corporately. These prayers might be to God, but they are often for the benefit of the recipient (i.e. he/she receives a benefit simply by hearing the prayer, even before God has answered), not to mention any other listeners.

- If you’re feeling alone, unloved and confused or misunderstood, a loving, sensitive prayer in season can begin the healing process, and open your heart to receive God’s love and full restoration.
- If your faith is weak, or you don’t know how to pray, the prayers of others can both bring about the answer you sought and increase your faith to ask for similar things in future.
- Even if you have full confidence in what you’re praying for (and Who you’re praying to), the agreement of others is both effective (see above) and encouraging. We are meant to be a family, after all, praying together enables us to share more fully in the joy of the answers we receive to the prayers of our hearts.

Great expectations
Praying audibly helps us to be specific, and it can often be a useful exercise in setting out our expectations of what the result of the prayer might be (thought obviously God often surprises us, and we shouldn’t limit him…). It can help the prayee (!) see the kind of answer he or she might expect to receive – if Paul had simply said ‘I’m praying for you’ in his letter to the Ephesians, they may not have been on the look-out for the kind of results God was bringing about in their lives:

Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:17-23)

I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19).

Credit where it’s due
Related to the last point, it glorifies God when the answer comes. The Ephesians may not have noticed themselves becoming more loving, knowing the hope to which they were called or being strengthened with power. Worse, they might have attributed their growth in those areas to their own increasing maturity, and given themselves a corporate pat on the back.

Praying out loud together gives us the opportunity, when the answer arrives, to say ‘Hey, look, that’s exactly what we asked God for!’ and give glory to him, rather than being tempted to think things just sort of worked out by themselves.

There are times, of course, when you can’t pray in person, or even over the phone. The advent of email means you can pray then and there for someone and know they will (most likely) receive it within minutes rather than the days (or months) letters used to take. It’s something I find a little odd, to receive an email addressed to God (and really much of this post is a result of me trying to work out why, and talking myself round!), but it is more effective than simply saying ‘I’m praying for you’, for all the reasons listed above. It can come across as impersonal if you’re not careful, and of course, as with all written communication, we need to be extra careful with our word choice and tone, but at least it means you have actually prayed, and not just filed the impulse away with all your other good intentions.

Beware man-traps
I think a lot of my hesitation around/scepticism towards corporate prayer springs from too many bad experiences growing up of some of the negative uses of the form. Thankfully, I haven’t come across these so much of late, but some things to watch yourself for include:

- The Preach-prayer. Often employed at the end of a Bible Study or (worse) church business meeting, this is used when you don’t think you’ve got your points across clearly enough, or when others haven’t come round to your point of view. The wording can be long and winding, but essentially the prayer is ‘Dear Lord, help us to see that my ideas are right. Amen’. Don’t do it. Prayer is not about getting the last word.
- The ‘things I wish I was brave enough to say to you in person’ prayer. Related to the above, this prayer is usually one-on-one and is deployed when someone has come to you with a problem they want prayer for. Say ‘Mary’ is worried about how her kids are behaving now they’re off at Uni. Instead of praying for their protection, for good friends, good influences and for God to guard their hearts and minds, you pray that Mary will stop being so controlling and let go, allowing them to make their own mistakes rather than babying them as she always has done. The latter may be true and may need to be said, but saying it first in a prayer is not loving – it’s critical and judgemental. Don’t do it.
- Ticking it off a list. A prayer in public is not worth two in the closet. If someone asks for prayer, 3 minutes spent praying where they can hear you should still be backed up by the same persistence you would show if you hadn’t had that public opportunity.
- Thinking your own, private prayers have less power. And we’re back where we started – being prayed for by others is wonderful and there are lots of good reasons for it, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’ll have to wait till Sunday to get someone to pray about that for me’ – God listens to you, too, in the secret places, and he is just as likely to answer your prayer as he is anybody else’s. Keep praying.

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Did Luke Solve the Synoptic Problem?

Biblical Studies research seminars can tend towards the obscure. But the session I've just come out of, which zeroed in on a Bivariate Binary Analysis of the Synoptic Gospels, was more obscure than most. The basic idea was that, by doing statistical analysis, we might be able to work out whether Matthew's use of Mark was independent of Luke's use of Mark (assuming, for now, that both Matthew and Luke used Mark). The very, very tentative answer is no: Matthew and Luke were probably not using Mark independently from one another. There. I've saved you two hours.

There was, however, a fascinating proposal to come out of an otherwise fairly dense seminar. It came when Professor Joan Taylor suggested that Luke might have solved the synoptic problem for us.

The premise of most discussions of the synoptic problem, you see, is that we have three main written sources (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plus a hypothetical written source that we no longer have (called Q), plus various oral traditions - and the four written sources (if Q existed) are somehow related. (Recent work by scholars like Francis Watson and Mark Goodacre is challenging this consensus, by the way, but it still represents the mainstream). This prompts all sorts of puzzles: why do Matthew and Luke change the text of Mark so much? Why do they change it in similar, but not identical, ways? Why does Luke leave out a huge chunk of Mark (the “great omission”), but Matthew doesn’t? Was there an early version of Mark, now lost, which contained a fuller resurrection account but not the chapters that Luke omitted? Did Luke even use John? And so on.

But Joan, in a crazy and radical move, went back to the start of Luke itself. She pointed out that Luke, by his own admission, was aware of “many” written narratives of the life of Jesus, and that there were probably all sorts of written sources floating around, many of which were available to Luke, and only a handful of which we still have today. Here’s how Luke begins:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (1:1-4)

As such, Luke may have had Mark, Matthew, John, Q, R, S, T, U, V and W to draw on. This pretty much scuppers any detailed attempt to reconstruct who read what and when, which makes it a huge problem for a certain type of biblical scholar, but it does have the significant merit of taking seriously what Luke himself says. And I can’t help feeling there would be an amusing irony to the people who know the text of scripture the best, and pontificate about its origins the most, having had the answer we were looking for sitting right under our noses. Worryingly like the Judeans in John 5, that.

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How to Craft a Christian Aphorism

I guess it would be unfair to blame Twitter entirely. Perhaps if I looked back a generation I could pour my scorn on the creators of bumper-stickers. Though if I were feeling especially churlish I may even be tempted to curse the makers of bumpers for providing them a platform in the first place! But then where would I stop…

I don’t much like Christian aphorisms.

I mean; I like some of them. Which is just as well, since the Bible contains a book full of them! They can be powerful, useful things. Some of the most memorable moments in sermons or books are when the communicator manages to summarise a huge concept in a tiny, snappy sentence that just wedges itself in your mind. I try to do it myself and it works. I like humour, witticisms, puns, and inspirational quotes. So my tongue is somewhat lodged in my cheek as I write this post… but I don’t much like the majority of Christian aphorisms I encounter online.

The type I really dislike are the ones that just feel like a pointless play on words, with a vaguely spiritual message, crafted to invoke retweets. Thrown out into the twittersphere without explanation or follow up. A pastor reaching down from his pedestal to give his disciples a little tickle under the chin. They typically sound like they’re really profound, but when you stop and think about them (which you really should before you hit RT) they make almost no sense at all.

A secular example: Comedian Bill Bailey talks about The Killers’ lyric “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.” On a first hearing it sounds clever and profound. It gets stadium crowds punching the air as they sing it in unison. But when you stop and think for a moment, you realise that it is so utterly meaningless, you might as well be singing “I’ve got ham, but I’m not a hamster.”


At certain times of day my twitter feed looks like a traffic-jam in which I’ve found myself eye-to-bumper with a million-and-one delegates on their way home from a Christian Accessory-Expo. Which probably means I’m following the wrong people. Occasionally people tweet laconic witticisms mocking “bumper-sticker Christianity” which is too many levels of meta- and irony for my tiny brain to handle!

And if you’re sitting there, smugly nodding and thinking “he’s talking about Osteen and co”, no. I probably mean your people too. It goes beyond just the quick-fix “Jesus can wash your teeth whiter than the snow” feel-good tweets. This is a cross-tribal thing. We all do it.

So, if you’ll indulge me, here’s a little recipe I’ve put together to craft the perfectly retweetable Christian aphorism.

Store Cupboard Ingredients

Whatever tribe you’re part of, these little babies need to be kept in stock at all times. They are the base ingredients – the onions and garlic – of your perfectly crafted aphorisms.

False dichotomies. If you have a strong preference for something in particular and want everyone to feel the same, make it sound far better by contrasting it with something negative. Don’t worry about things like ‘category mistakes’. Just ride roughshod over nuance with tweets about: Religion vs Relationship; Heart vs Mind; Imitation vs Information; Power vs Truth. Be creative and see how far you can widen it out! Jesus vs Broccoli? Better example.

Word-breaks. Sometimes you can be really creative by breaking a word in two and reading some significance into the shards. Let me demonstrate with a couple of examples I’ve seen. “Bible begins with Bib, because it’s just what you need for a hearty feast.” Don’t think about it too much. The logic doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Just nod, chuckle and hit retweet.

Or “It’s no coincidence that the word ‘gospel’ begins with ‘go.’” And thus you have a natty, retweetable missional imperative. Most people won’t notice the fact that the Greek for Gospel begins with Eu, which is roughly the sound I make when I read tweets like this.

Chiasms. Make sure your tweet is nicely balanced with inverted parallelism. This little device has been a mainstay of political rhetoric for many years. For example: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” (J.F. Kennedy) or “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail” (Benjamin Franklin)

(Note; lots of Presidents and War Generals appear to have been finely trained in the art of the chiasm. So learning this technique may give a nice and much-sought-after alpha male feel to your tweet. Grrr!)

Throw in a few Christian words, particularly about the spiritual disciplines, and you’ll end up with some great new aphorisms: “Don’t read the word, let the Word read you” or “Don’t sing worship songs, let worship songs sing you.”

Don’t worry if your tweets don’t make an awful lot of sense; that’s part of the beauty of it. (And anyone who says otherwise is a legalist!)

A couple of Variations:

If you want to give your aphorism a Gospel-Centred twist, try the following:

1) Firstly, anthropomorphise ‘the Gospel.’ Speak of it as a being. Use phrases like “The Gospel speaks…” or “The Gospel gives us…” Literally, give the message legs.

2) Don’t forget to give him (or her? No… most definitely him!) a capital G. This will help with step 3.

3) Take any sentence in which the words God or Jesus would be perfectly suitable and replace them with the word ‘Gospel’.

4) Misread references to ‘morality’ as ‘moralism’ on every possible occasion and then contrast it with ‘Gospel’ using the false dichotomy method as stated above.

Or why not try a missiological flavoured aphorism:

1) Everybody knows that words sound better in a dead language. Wherever possible, translate phrases into Latin. That will really help people take you a lot more seriously and thus further the missio dei.

2) If there isn’t a word for what you want to say (in English or Latin) make one up! You can never have too many new words. Where would we be without the term ‘missional’ for example. Try smashing some words together to create interesting neologisms. Global + Local = Glocal! Fun, huh? (You can worry about the meaning later. Definitions are for modernists anyway!)

3) Talk profusely about incarnatory practices and decry those Christians who are culturally irrelevant, whilst employing all the new words and terms you’ve just discovered/created. The more red squiggly lines under your words, the better. Fight jargon with jargon!

I could continue, but you get the picture…

Feel free to chip in with any tips I’ve missed. And try them out – see if adopting these strategies doesn’t increase your followership by thousands (and decrease it by one - me!).

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Vanhoozer on the Canaanite Conquest

Here's a superb question, and then answer, from Kevin Vanhoozer in the Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy book, which Jamie Franklin reviewed recently. If you've ever wrestled with the Canaanite conquest - and I certainly have - you'll want to read it all:

Why did Jesus himself not find Deuteronomy’s depiction of God abhorrent? Probably because he was not working with the concept of “morally perfect being”. I find it interesting that Rauser and Morriston treat their own moral intuitions about what a perfect being must do as more reliable (dare I say inerrant?) than the biblical text. As Christians, they should know that the wisdom of the world is the foolishness of God ...

If we view Scripture with the widest of wide-angle lenses, we see that God finally succeeds in forming a fit habitation in which to dwell: a cosmic temple. A number of commentators have pointed out that ancient Near Eastern kings typically built temples to commemorate victory in battle, and Yahweh does something similar, creating a garden temple in Eden after subduing chaos. That garden temple becomes corrupt, however, and so begins a long restoration project that concludes only with the establishment of new heavens and a new earth: the cosmic temple. This may seem miles away from our immediate textual issue, but it is not.

Israel’s entry into the Promised Land hearkens back to the exodus from Egypt: in both cases, God enables Israel to pass through the waters (symbolic of chaos) and to anticipate the consummation of his drama of redemption at the final judgment, when the last battle will be fought by the Divine Warrior, and Satan and his minions will be defeated forever. This is the overarching framework that puts God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 into right perspective: it’s all about cleansing a temple space for God to dwell with his people (that is, not ethnic but ethic cleansing). The herem - the requirement to “dedicate” the Canaanites to destruction - ultimately pertains to holiness, not hostility: “It was not driven by genocidal or military considerations, but the need to eradicate evil and prevent evil from spreading to the new population.” It is noteworthy that the divine command strictly circumscribed the herem in space and time, that God threatened Israel with the same fate in case of disobedience (and made good his threat - see Jer 25:9), and that it is a type of the ultimate destiny of people who oppose God. The reason why Jesus can say “love your enemies” without condemning the Old Testament is because the conquest of Canaan was a unique and limited event - a single scene, now past - in the drama of redemption ...

A biblically literate reader ought to hear overtones of the conquest narrative in the passion narrative as well; here too God spares nothing that breathes. The definitive battle over evil is indeed accomplished on the cross, where Jesus “breathed his last” (Matt 27:50).  Jesus worked some violence himself when he “cleansed” the temple, driving out people who profaned it with their money (Mark 11:15-16). In other words, Jesus himself displayed the same jealous zeal for the house of God that Yahweh had earlier for his land and people. What is God’s must be consecrated to God, and to him alone. I believe that the difficulty we moderns have with the herem stems from an anemic sense of holiness and an underestimation of the scandal of idolatry, but that is a matter for another time.

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Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: A Review

It’s a big task to condense a book like this into a short review. In the introduction, the editors lay out the focus in the following way:

We have accordingly narrowed our focus to what seems to be the most significant issues, asking our contributors to treat four topics: (1) God and his relationship to his creatures, (2) the doctrine of inspiration, (3) the nature of Scripture, and (4) the nature of truth.

If this is a narrowing of the focus, one is tempted to ask, then how broad must have been the original intention? They continue:

Contributors have been asked to develop their position on these in reference to the CSBI.

The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) was formulated in 1978 by a council of 200 or so evangelical scholars at the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy, which was held in Chicago (no surprise there) and is apparently of some significance to modern evangelicalism (although, as we will see, not all of the contributors afford it the same level of importance as others).

As well as this, the contributors were all asked to comment on three supposed problem texts and how their particular take on inerrancy speaks to those texts. These texts raise three different types of problems for inerrancy: factual problems, problems of canonical coherence, and problem of theological coherence. The texts they chose and the corresponding problems are as follows:

1) Joshua 6, ‘since current archaeological and historiographical evidence calls into question the details of the text’s account.’
2) Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9. ‘Both texts describe Saul’s conversion. The former says that his travel companions “heard the voice but saw no one,” while the latter says that they “saw the lights but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking” (NRSV).’
3) Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5. ‘How is it that Deuteronomy 20 instructs Israel that the complete extermination of Yahweh’s enemies is a matter of Israel’s purity before and obedience to Yahweh, while Jesus subsequently says that faithfulness to God requires nonretaliation and sacrificial love of enemies (Matt. 5:38-48)?’

So each contribution goes roughly like this: the contributor outlines his view on inerrancy, with respect to the CSBI, and then comments on the problem texts, and then the other four contributors write a short response to the main contributor.

The five contributors are ‘two systematic theologians (John Franke and Kevin Vanhoozer), two biblical scholars (Michael Bird and Peter Enns), and one historical theologian (Albert Mohler).’ To try and do any justice to the issues here would be outlandish, so I’ll give a few thoughts and observations about each of the authors in turn. On the whole the contributions are snappy and easy to follow, and a couple of the contributors are quite hilarious at times. (I actually started using a different highlighter colour on my Kindle to indicate lols.) Here goes.

“When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy” by R. Albert Mohler Jr.

For me, this and the second essay by Peter Enns are the most exciting. These two are maybe the most extreme and outspoken of the five (although I suppose some would consider Franke to be a bit of a bad boy), so they write the most entertaining stuff and provoke the most entertaining reaction.

So, while I found this essay exciting to read, I have to say that I was glad to read the responses, which are on the whole highly critical of Mohler’s approach. As you can tell by the title, Mohler has quite a black and white approach to inerrancy, and he makes three arguments for why the ‘total inerrancy of Scripture’ (by which he means affirming the CSBI in every detail) is the way to go: ‘the Bible itself, the tradition of the church, and the function of the Bible within the church.’ I think his approach on all of these issues is flawed for the following reasons.

On the first, I find the jump from the things that Bible says about itself to something like the CSBI to be hugely speculative. It seems to me to be overstating the case. On the second, after reading all the essays, it seems to clear to me that to call the CSBI the ‘classic doctrine of Biblical inerrancy’, as though every major figure from church history has affirmed something like it, is misleading. The point that comes up over and over again in this book is that we live in a culture that leads us to have a precisionist, like-for-like notion of truth, which is rooted in the period of history known as modernity. Thus if the Bible says that it took three days to walk across Nineveh, then it took exactly three days. Origen, Augustine, Calvin, and anyone else you care to mention, did not live in this culture, and so interpreted scripture very differently. Augustine may have affirmed inerrancy, but his view of what inerrancy is would have been incredibly different. This from John Franke’s response to Mohler (a point that is made by many other contributors):

As with many who shared (Augustine’s) Platonist mind-set, he found much that he believed (about the Bible, and before his conversion) to be unworthy of God. It was not until he discovered the spiritual, allegorical, and figurative interpretation of Scripture in the preaching of Ambrose that he was able to affirm Christian teaching and the truth of Scripture. In this context, Hellenistic appreciation of myth and symbol became an essential part of Augustine’s approach to biblical interpretation, in which allegory served as a powerful and important means of conveying religious and philosophical truth. Origen and Augustine were hardly alone in this regard as many, even most, early Christian teachers made use of spiritual and allegorical interpretation to defend the divine origin of the Bible and explain away some of its literal teachings in the face of cultural assumptions and challenges.

Mohler’s third point seems to be that the church needs the Bible, and so inerrancy must be true. Again, one must ask, what inerrancy is he talking about? Is he really saying that the CSBI is so important that the church needs it to survive? It seems to be quite a narrow point of view when he writes things like, ‘Without the Scripture, we would be left with nothing more than an oral tradition concerning Christ and the comprehensive whole of God’s message to us.’ It’s a kind of cultural imperialism to dismiss so casually all oral tradition as though it has nothing at all to offer anyone. One might also make the point that the English church didn’t have a Bible in its own language until 1611, which meant that there were Celtic and English Christians for over a thousand years who didn’t have the scriptures in their own language. Didn’t they need it too?

In any case, it doesn’t seem to follow that the Bible is inerrant because (in Mohler’s view) the church needs an inerrant Bible. Maybe the church needs something it doesn’t have, or needs something other than an inerrant Bible in the way Mohler wants to define inerrancy.

There are (at least) two other problems with Mohler’s essay that I’d like to mention: his fanatical attitude towards the CSBI, and his general tone. This quote is an example of the former:

Without reservation, I affirm the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. I affirm the document and agree with its assertions in whole and in part. To be true to the Scriptures, I believe, evangelicals must affirm its stated affirmations and join in its stated denials.

The question comes back throughout the book: what about everyone in history who has tried to be faithful to Scripture who didn’t have the CSBI, or who wouldn’t have affirmed it? What about everyone else in the world at this moment who has never heard of it and yet maintains that the scripture carries God’s authority? One of the funniest quotes in the book comes from Michael Bird, who writes:

The biggest problem I have in this section is that Mohler treats the CSBI like it is a kind of evangelical magisterium. The inerrancy of Scripture is anchored in the infallibility of the CSBI. If the claims of the CSBI are not true, then the entire edifice of Scripture crumbles into ruin. I would surmise that Mohler has turned the CSBI into a type of horcrux upon which Scripture’s own life depends.

The second aspect that worries me is Mohler’s general tone. And I have a lot of sympathy with Peter Enns on this point. I offer the following quotes from Enns as deserving of attention:

Mohler continues to promulgate an alarmist view of the nature of Scripture that does not bear up under the scrunity of the biblical data or biblical scholarship … Mohler’s position is in my view intellectually untenable, but when wielded as a weapon, it becomes spiritually dangerous … And when seen to speak publicly for a significant number of others, or for American evangelicalism as a whole, it is disconcerting and embarrassing.

Strong words, but they make an important point. I think Mohler’s viewpoint is blinkered, as, for example, when he writes this comment in response to Vanhoozer later on in the book:

What he calls “poorly versed accounts of inerrancy” can do great harm, he argues, and “do not ultimately help the cause of biblical authority”. That is true, of course, but it must also be stated, with even greater forthrightness, that denials of biblical inerrancy have often caused far greater damage.

I think this is blinkered because Mohler seems to think that the only possible consideration anyone can have when it comes to this question on inerrancy is defending it from those liberals who want to say that the Bible has errors. He doesn’t seem to be able to consider, for example, the fact the shrill, uncompromising, anti-intellectual tone of much of American evangelicalism is not a very good or loving witness to America or the rest of the world (as, of course, shows like The West Wing are very apt to point out.) Take another quote from Mike Bird:

(Mohler’s view on inerrancy) means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief. I submit that this kind of “my way or the highway” approach to a doctrine of Scripture is why we have so many ex-evangelicals like Bart Ehrman and Rob Bell running around making all kinds of howling protests against the Bible.

I think this is a very challenging paragraph, and deserving of the attention of the evangelical church.

In conclusion, I admire Mohler’s conviction and his willingness to take a bullet for it. I just worry he might up taking a bullet for the wrong thing, and make others feel guilty for not doing the same.

“Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What The Bible Does” by Peter Enns

This was probably my favourite essay of the lot, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I can go where Enns wants to go. Quotes like this make it for me:

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations.

I think that he’s right, and that he has immediately picked up on something that Mohler and the CSBI haven’t. Enns instead wants to read scripture in an incarnational sense, which means, ‘What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here is the manner in which God speaks truth, namely, through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors.’ Surely, no one can doubt this to be true, but how does this work out for Enns in practice? Here I find the test cases helpful.

How does Enns deal with Joshua 6? Well, he basically says that modern scholarship has indeed made it impossible to believe that the conquest of Jericho happened in the way that the Bible describes. He writes the following:

…the biblical story reflects a small historical core (perhaps suggested by some archaeological evidence) that at some point was mythicized. This could prompt fruitful discussion, though we must also admit that once we follow this path, we have left the world of inerrancy as it functions in evangelicalism as a prescriptive doctrine.

Fair enough. And it does seem that Enns has walked away from inerrancy at this point. What confuses me is how he thinks that the Bible carries any sense of authority if he thinks this. ‘This could prompt fruitful discussion,’ he writes, but can it really? What kind of discussion would that be?

Leaving the Acts problem aside, Enns’ view of the extermination of the Canaanites is interesting in a similar way. Enns scores a rhetorical point or two for me when he writes, ‘For inerrantists, an “errant” Bible is a greater theological threat than a God who orders the extermination of an entire people.’ And he says that ‘these narratives are the rhetoric of a tribal people, who understood their own existence and their God’s role among them in terms of the categories of tribal culture: gods are warriors who fight for their people against enemies…’ He then says that there is a ‘compelling case that Matthew’s gospel as a whole asks its readers “to interpret the Mosaic ‘genocide’ through the lens of Jesus’ radical message of love.”’

I think that it’s to be applauded that Enns is willing to think outside the box a little bit when considering Jesus’ attitude towards the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus certainly believed the Scriptures, but sometimes it seems to me that to attribute an evangelical’s view of the Bible to Jesus’ view of the Hebrew Scriptures is a bit of a stretch.

All that aside, where does Enns’ view on Deuteronomy 20 leave us? Did it happen? Should we approve of Deuteronomy 20? What fruitful conversation might we have as a result of it? I’m not sure he answers these questions, aside from implying that it probably didn’t happen.

In summary on Enns, I think that his critique of the tone and, in some areas, the content of the evangelical view of inerrancy is spot on. However, he doesn’t seem to have much an idea of what he would replace such a view with. He advocates a vague ‘descriptive approach.’

A descriptive approach would be more a statement of faith on the part of the reader that no matter what is encountered, the reader is in the presence of our God.

This sounds wonderful, but I’m not sure where it leaves us when we read texts like Joshua 6 and Deuteronomy 20. And so I don’t feel like we can simply leave things there, as Enns does in this essay.

“Inerrancy Is Not Necessary For Evangelicalism Outside The USA” by Michael F. Bird

Michael Bird writes a great essay, the main point of which is that this debate needs to be reframed around something that is not inerrancy. He writes:

The American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves.

He goes on to say that ‘the (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) was international to the same extent that winners of the World Series or the Super Bowl are “world” champions.’ Later he gets another lol when he asks, ‘why do Americans presume to teach us a proper doctrine of biblical authority and biblical interpretation when they live in the same country as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series!’

For me, this is an important point to bring to bear in this conversation, namely, that we all bring our cultural baggage and priorities into a debate like this. But what does Bird suggest we do instead of focussing so much on inerrancy? He goes on:

Rather than “inerrancy”, a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be “veracity,” or “divine truthfulness.” Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue – which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it – we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his word.

This kind of thing, according to Bird, is more usual outside of the US. He writes, ‘For the most part, global churches have focused on Scripture as “infallible” and “authoritative.”’ And he gives a very good summary of what many current and historical international bodies, from the Reformers to UCCF, have included in their statements of faith. Needless to say, inerrancy doesn’t feature in any of them.

When Bird talks about infallibility, I think what he means is that the scripture makes whatever kind of point it is trying to make in an infallible way. So when it comes to the text case of Joshua 6, he does call into question resting our faith on contemporary scholarship, but he also writes:

An infallibilist reading of this story will always be interested in its historical reliability, since it narrates an act of God in history; however the main thrust of the story is God’s promise to take his people into the Promised Land, and it’s on this point that our faith is said to rest.

So Bird appears to me here to be like a less extreme version of Peter Enns. The point is not that the scriptures get every single detail right, but that they teach us something about God. He gives us an interesting quote from Calvin:

John Calvin said: “We know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates, or even in detailing minutely everything that Christ did or said.”

And so Bird writes of the apparent contradiction in Acts:

Ancient historians were storytellers, not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives and filled in the gaps on details where necessary. The function of Scripture here is to communicate the unexpected and arresting nature of Paul’s conversion and calling.

This all seems quite reasonable to me, and if I were to place myself on a spectrum, I think would be around this kind of place, which shares similarities with Kevin Vanhoozer’s view.

“Truth, And Literate Interpretation In The Economy Of Biblical Discourse” by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay is well-articulated and helpful in clarifying the issues. He starts things out by saying that while ‘inerrancy, is not essential, is nevertheless expedient.’ So inerrancy may be a helpful word to use, but for Vanhoozer, we may need what he calls ‘an account of “well-versed” inerrancy.’ This is to be distinguished from a poor-verse account of inerrancy. Vanhoozer writes:

My primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition.’

His position may be best summed up by a quote from Augustine with which he finishes his essay:

…if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.

For Vanhoozer, this means that if the manuscript is sound, and the translator has done his work well, and if we can understand what’s going on properly (which is what he means by having the literacy needed for understanding), then we will cease to be perplexed by the situation, and come to a place of understanding.

So for the test cases, about Jericho and Joshua 6, Vanhoozer basically says that we need to read the text properly: ‘Reading Joshua simply to discover “what actually happened” is to miss the main point of the discourse, which is to communicate a theological interpretation of what happened (that is, God gave Israel the land)…’ Once we read the text like this, we may have some room to at least imagine a harmony between modern scholarship and the claims of the Bible.

Vanhoozer’s view of the Acts contradiction is very similar to Peter Enns’ (which I didn’t mention earlier). This is helpful and revealing for me, and rather than take away from the Bible, I think it adds a further dimension to reading a book like Acts.

Enns’ and Vanhoozer’s view, although different, basically goes like this: Luke is not interest in precise, modernistic accuracy in his accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts. What is going on in Acts 9 and 22 is better understood as a call narrative in which a literary device is being used to show that Paul uniquely was experiencing a call from God. Vanhoozer writes,

A biblically literate reader will note parallels between the story of Paul’s conversion and other incidents in which the Lord appears to select individuals or groups in ways that stretch human auditory and visual sensibilities. Consider, for example, how Moses reminds Israel of God’s appearing with thunder and lightning at Mount Horeb: “You heard the sounds of words but saw no form” (Deut 4:12). Phos (light) and phone (voice) are standard features of biblical theophanies. In Acts 9, Paul’s companions do not see the light; in Acts 22, they do not hear the voice. If the intent is to show that only Paul truly experienced the appearance of Christ, then the two accounts express essentially the same proposition: “Paul’s companions had no share in his christophanic encounter.”

Once again, I found all of this helpful.

“Recasting Biblical Inerrancy: The Bible As Witness To Missional Plurality” by John R. Franke

John Franke’s essay is self-described as ‘an experiment in postconservative or progressive evangelical theology.’ He makes the same point that pretty much all the other authors have made when it comes to the CSBI when he writes:

… ancient luminaries such as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great all affirmed that Scripture was truthful and without error, but did so with philosophical, hermeneutical, and theological assumptions that allowed them to downplay and even sometimes discount the literal meaning of Scripture in favour of spiritual and allegorical interpretation. It is doubtful that any of these early Christian leaders would affirm the details of the Chicago statement.

His quite pertinent critique continues as he accuses inerrantists of being dependant on foundationalism. Foundationalism, according to Franke, has been discredited in philosophical circles, and so we need to start approaching the Bible in a different way. He continues:

In addition, this approach (foundationalism) maintains that if there is a single error at any place in the Bible, none of it can be trusted. I have heard it said many times from this perspective that if there is one error in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand and none of it can be trusted. Of course, this is nonsense. As though an error in one of the books of the Old Testament means that the witness to the resurrection in the New Testament is somehow suspect or less trustworthy.

All of this is definitely worth pointing out, and I think Frank has got a lot to diagnose. But I don’t think I can do justice to Franke’s view here because I found it hard to understand some of the postmodern concepts he brings in midway through his essay. It reminded me of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I do think that the point he makes about foundationalism is very strong. He continues along this line later on with a helpful distinction separating God’s knowledge from ours:

Scripture is truth written (small t), in that it provides a series of faithful witnesses to the Truth of God’s self-revelation without itself becoming a manifestation of capital-T Truth. This means that while Scripture is truthful and trustworthy, we must be careful to respect the creator-creature distinction in our use of it.

In my view, this kind of thinking is wielding postmodernism to good effect: using a more nuanced definition of ‘truth’ to have a better grasp of what scripture is trying to achieve. On this view, we each have a perspective on scripture with only our small-t truth, and only God has access to capital-T truth. And this is why scripture provides us with what Franke calls a ‘pluriform’ truth. Franke writes, ‘The Bible is polyphonic. Perhaps the presence of four gospel accounts offers the most straightforward and significant demonstration of plurality in the biblical canon.’

I think this is a very exciting way to start thinking about the Bible. But how does Franke deal with the three challenges to biblical inerrancy? Franke’s perspective is that the point of the Bible is not to get everything right, but to achieve a certain end. So with the Joshua passage, after concluding that the archaeologists are probably correct, he writes:

Its ultimate purpose is not to provide precise, literal details of history but to form a covenantal community called to be a blessing to the world in keeping with the mission of God.

I suppose many might make the quite reasonable point that it might impair the scriptures’ ability to form a covenantal community if the scripture makes historical claims that are wrong. But again we see the point that the primary purpose of scripture is not to satisfy the modernist cravings of 21st Century westerners, but to achieve a certain end. Franke writes of the apparent contradiction in Acts:

That these two particular texts are cited as a concern for biblical authority is indicative of a particular understanding of inspiration and inerrancy that does not do justice to the phenomena of Scripture.

Along with Enns and Vanhoozer, Franke says that we are missing the point if we think this kind of detail is particularly worrying. Luke was doing something different than presenting history in the way that we understand it. I think quotes like the following are compelling:

We have two creation accounts, multiple law codes, alternative genealogies, competing histories, and four gospels. The various attempts at harmonization are rooted in the apologetic concern to demonstrate the inerrancy of Scripture as the basis on which to defend the truthfulness of Christian faith. The result of this process has been increasing cultural scepticism about the Bible as well as an artificial approach to interpretation that often disables readers from seeing what the texts actually say.

When we come to the apparent theological discrepancy between Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5, Franke, with Peter Enns, says that the ‘Old Testament is a contextual accommodation to the militaristic culture of the ancient Near East. This accounts for the regular depictions of God that use the terminology of a warrior fighting on behalf of his people.’ He goes to say that Jesus deconstructs Deuteronomy 20, when he ‘calls into question prior assumptions and practices.’ “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45)

All this seems to make sense. But then I can’t help wondering what we’re supposed to do with Deuteronomy. And if all of the Bible is a cultural accommodation to some extent, doesn’t it follow that we can’t really trust any of it?

Concluding Comments

I suspect that evangelicalism is intertwined with modernity, and that much of what we think is Christian is actually modernist. Hence much of what we believe is rooted in a system of thought that has been long and rightly left behind. We should not be frightened to identify and move beyond these things too. This doesn’t mean that we must embrace all postmodernism, and that anyone can make up anything they want and start doing whatever they feel like (or any other silly criticisms of postmodernism that might be made). But it does mean that we need to stop appealing to modernity and to what it finds to be acceptable. And we need to move towards a more nuanced definition of truth, and a better understanding of what God was trying to achieve through the authors of the Bible when it was written. I’m not sure exactly how to do this, but I’m convinced that we should try. For me, this is the most important message of the book. Michael Bird encapsulates something similar in a very compelling section on B. B. Warfield and the early evangelicals, with which I will finish:

We might say that Warfield and the inerrantists who followed him went a bridge too far, since they seized more intellectual terrain than they could effectively defend. They allowed modernity to fight on the philosophical ground of their choosing and with the epistemological weapons of their choosing. The Battle for the Bible was always rigged in favour of modernity, and a better strategy would have been to deconstruct modernity as its philosophical DNA. So we shouldn’t anchor the truth of Scripture in our own apologetic capabilities to beat the skeptics at their own game. I think there are better ways.

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The Lambeth Conference and Queen Latifah

When I got home today the latest edition of JETS was waiting on my doorstep: always an exciting moment.

The opening article by Dennis Hollinger concerns The Ethics of Contraception, and notes the lack of theological reflection on the subject among protestants (with the notable exception of Karl Barth, who has been hugely influential in my own thinking on sex, marriage and contraception). Hollinger quotes from the 1920 Lambeth Conference of Bishops in the Anglican Church, which rejected contraception:

In opposition to the teaching which, under the name of science and religion, encourages married people in the deliberate cultivation of sexual union as an end in itself, we steadfastly uphold what must always be regarded as the governing considerations of Christian marriage. One is the primary purpose for which marriage exists, namely the continuation of the race through the gift and heritage of children.

By 1930 the Bishops’ line had softened to the extent that contraception was given legitimacy, but only within very narrow bounds, and the general tone was still hostile towards contraception: “The Conference records its strong condemnation of the use of any methods of contraception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”

Despite this hostility, the approval given for contraception at the 1930 Lambeth Conference was significant. As Hollinger notes, “Within a matter of several decades most of Protestantism followed the Lambeth trajectory. With the arrival of the Pill in 1960 the shift became complete.”

From our cultural viewpoint it is difficult to appreciate what a huge shift there has been in approaches to contraception in less than a century, and along with it, a shift in how marriage is understood more broadly. Even on this blog, when I have written about procreation being the primary purpose of marriage (echoing not only the 1920 Lambeth Conference but almost the entirety of Christian thought up to that point) my fellow members of the THINK team have encouraged me to instead write a primary purpose. To claim that marriage (and thus sex) is primarily about procreation is shocking to contemporary ears and always generates a reaction when I suggest it. How on earth can I justify that viewpoint? people ask.

How about we turn the question around and conduct a thought experiment. What theological argument might be used to justify our current cultural assumptions about marriage and sex – that it is primarily about love? Anyone?

And then let’s do some cultural analysis. If earlier generations of Christians were correct in their belief that marriage was primarily about the conception and rearing of children, what kind of society might that create? But if marriage and sex are primarily about ‘love’, why should we be surprised by a group gay mirage at the Grammies presided over by Queen Latifah? Trajectory dear boy. Trajectory.


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The Charismatic-Cessationist Gap Is Smaller Than You Think

The gap between cessationism and continuationism may not be as large as it appears. There was a really helpful exchange at TGC last week between Tom Schreiner (cessationist) and Sam Storms (continuationist), which laid out the key issues clearly. But here's a fascinating comment from Doug Wilson about his debate with Adrian Warnock:

I told a story about a “word of knowledge” experience I once had, which caused Adrian to call me a continuationist in denial. I said that was fine, so long as he agreed — since no new Scriptures are being produced by the “extant” gifts — that he was a cessationist in denial ...

In other words, cessationists can agree that God speaks to people today, and continuationists agree that no new scriptures are being written. So what’s the problem? Well:

This whole issue is actually a question of epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we know? Now, as a Calvinist, I know that absolutely everything is “from God” in one sense, but I also know that we have to take care to distinguish the multiple senses that this can take on. I know that Romans 1:20 is from God. I know that my understanding of it is from God. I know that my knowledge of what a grape tastes like is from God. I know that when I press the Windows key on my laptop, the screen changes, and this knowledge is from God. I know how to catch a ball, and this knowledge too is from God. But these types of knowledge are all different.

What I don’t know is that my knowledge of some event in this world, however uncanny it is, is the same kind of knowledge that moved the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 1:20. Indeed, not only do I not know that, I know for a fact that I don’t know that. Since I know that this is not an option, I don’t want to speak in the company of Christians using the same language that was used when God was still revealing His Word to His people. I have had some remarkable experiences where my uncanny knowledge was borne out by events. But — and this is the absolute kicker — I have had times where I have known things this way and been wrong.

In other words, I believe I live in a personal world, a personal cosmos, in which God blesses and guides according to His good pleasure. He answers prayer. He directs our steps. He gives knowledge in spooky ways — just not inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge, the way He gave it to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Agabus ...

Obviously I would contest the claim that Agabus received “inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge”, and I would suggest that a comparison between Acts 21:10-14 and 21:27-36 would back me up on this (yes, I have read Tom Schreiner on this; no, I don’t think he does enough to support the claim of inerrant NT prophecy here). But it’s helpful to see that the issue, for a good few cessationists including this one, isn’t over whether God speaks today, but over whether he speaks directionally to individuals today in the same way as he speaks in scripture. On that, charismatics and cessationists agree: he doesn’t.

Effectively, then, what we disagree about is not whether people hear from God today, but what we should call it when they do:

If I say to a group of biblically literate people that “God told me,” or “thus saith the Lord,” they are going to assume that I am intending this as the formal equivalent of what that same phrase would have meant centuries ago before the canon was closed. Responsible charismatics vigorously deny that this is what they mean, but to speak in this unguarded way means that you constantly have to offer such denials. Why not simply speak about it with a different vocabulary, one that does not have the aura of prophetic authority?

Of course, I would say: because the New Testament does (especially in 1 Corinthians 12-14, as I discuss briefly here). And I know that our differences are not merely terminological, since terminology has important ramifications; Doug thinks 1 Corinthians 14:1 is not addressed to contemporary Christians, so we ought not to be eagerly desiring prophecy, and I think it is, so we should. As ever, careful exegesis is vital. But it is still helpful to see that - in this case at least! - the gap between cessationism and continuationism is not as large as it initially appears. My thanks to Adrian and Doug for moving us a bit closer to unity in the faith.

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Sugar, sugar

All of life is a war waged against gravity.

From the moment we emerge from our mothers womb, gravity is our constant. It pulls us down, sticking us to a planet spinning at 67,000 miles per hour around the Sun. Released from the weightlessness of our foetal astronaut existence we begin the fight – legs & arms quivering and flailing, air pushed from our lungs and blood pumped through our hearts, but stuck on our backs, like limpet to rock, as gravity makes its first, irresistible, claim on us.

For a time it feels as if we can win the fight – we learn to sit, to crawl, to walk, to run. We defy gravity. Every mountain climbed, flight taken, or weight lifted is a battle won. But in the end, gravity always has the victory, when the day comes when arms and legs can no longer be lifted, and at last our bodies are laid in the ground.

For some people this fight is more difficult than for others.

In April 2012 it was reported that firemen in Rotherham, “one of Britain’s fattest towns” were having to employ forklift trucks and hydraulic lifts to move obese people stuck as a result of accidents. This development followed a number of firemen being injured while attempting to shift fat people. In addition, the local emergency services had at their disposal one ambulance with the capacity to carry a patient weighing in excess of 40 stone, whereas the regular ambulances could only handle those up to a sylph-like 20 stone.

6,000 people in Rotherham (a town numbering in the region of 120,000 citizens) are known to have a body mass index (BMI) of more than 40 and nearly 800 have a BMI above 50, while a range of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered healthy. A BMI of more than 40 is considered to be morbidly obese. A BMI of more than 40 means that someone five feet eleven tall weighs more than 290 pounds. That’s 21 stone. Which is a lot. (It’s even more than Preston Sprinkle can benchpress.) ‘Morbidly obese’ is a morbid phrase redolent with the assumption that being this fat means you are tottering on the edge of death. And it means that one in twenty of Rotherham’s population are being dragged, like melting candles, like helpless sacrificial victims, into the merciless maw of gravities pull, with a force their more slender compatriots do not experience.

At this point, we should try and tidy up our terminology, for what is commonly described as ‘weight’ should be more accurately termed ‘mass’. Mass is constant. It is the amount of ‘stuff’ packed into a body (whether obese or not) and does not change irrespective of where that body is – so whether you are sitting in a takeaway in Rotherham, falling out of an aeroplane, or taking a space walk, your mass will be what your mass is. Weight, on the other hand, describes the gravitational force acting on a body mass, and will therefore alter, depending on where the body is. A trip to outer space will mean you weigh less, though it won’t do anything about your mass.

Perhaps appropriately, if somewhat cruelly, according to the British Gravitational System, units of mass are measured in slugs. The slug is a mass that accelerates by one foot per second per second when a force of one pound-force is exerted on it. Pound-force is equal to the gravitational force exerted on a mass of one avoirdupois pound on the surface of Earth. An avoirdupois pound is comprised of 16 ounces. At the surface of the Earth, an object with a mass of 1 slug exerts a force of about 32.17 pounds per foot. Force can also be measured in inches, rather than feet, in which case the unit of measurement is the blob – which must mean that slugs are more forceful than blobs.


Unless you are an engineer or a physicist, probably not. Practically speaking, if you were to have the misfortune of being hit by a falling member of Rotherham’s larger classes, the force of impact would be considerably greater than if someone with a BMI of 18 were to land on your head. Someone with the mass of 290 slugs is going to make a large impact.

Regardless of how you measure it, some things weigh more than others. In Rotherham there are too many people who weigh considerably more than is good for them; but whether your chosen unit of measurement is the slug, pound or kilo, all of us spend our lives fighting the irresistible pull of everything heading south.

Of course, the question of when enough is too much is debated. Take the whole notion of body mass index itself. Frankly, I am sceptical about the usefulness of this measure. Some of this is personal, as my BMI places me just inside the ‘overweight’ category. Perhaps I am engaging in self-deception in railing against this, but I eat a healthy diet, cycle to work, walk the dogs, and engage in vigorous physical exercise five or six days a week (running, cycling, circuit training), so don’t think I am overweight. At the other end of ridiculousness is Steve Way, a runner from Poole who is currently world 50km champion. Steve regularly runs more than 100 miles a week, and before a big race will engage in ‘carb-depletion’ – an exercise which then prepares him for carbo-loading in order to create a big energy reserve on race day. Before the last London Marathon Steve noted on his blog the effects of carb-depletion:

Weight : 10st 6 (4 pounds lighter than when I started depletion)

Waist : 27 inches (I’ve got some 38′s in the wardrobe from another life)

Resting HR : 34

Face : Skeletal

Cuddle factor score with Mrs Way : BIG FAT ZERO
Entertainingly, my BMI is still well within the boundaries of “normal” at 19.79 which shows what a load of old cobblers that is!

BMI might be cobblers, but Rotheram fire service are still having to invest in forklifts. Rotheram, we have a problem.

Andrew’s post on gluttony and homosexuality is what prompted me to weigh in on this subject matter. Also, last Sunday our text at Gateway Church was from Judges 3 and the account of the assassination of the supersized king Eglon at the sneaky hand of Ehud. The point of that story is that Eglon had grown fat on Israel, and then gets his comeuppance at the end of an Israelite dagger. It is Tom and Jerry stuff – we’re meant to see the irony and laugh at the humour. Preaching it can be tricky though, because of the sensitivities many people have around body size. I was preaching at another church so one of my young guns picked up the weighty Eglon. I counselled him to tread carefully, and that while emphasising the humour he needed to steer clear of needless offence. This he did, with wisely chosen words, but he still received complaints from the sensitive.

Which is why gluttony is such a difficult sin to address.

Part of the problem is that carrying too much weight does not necessarily equate to gluttony. As well as questioning the BMI, I have an innate scepticism towards the obesity industry. I hate being hectored, and we are constantly bossed and bullied about what to eat. I eat my five portions of fruit and veg each day, but this is because I like it and not because of some nannying official instructing me to do it. The reality is, we are all living longer, even though we are bigger. The health dangers of obesity are more than outweighed by the health advantages of modern life. Better too much to eat than too little. And my theology of joy means I want to celebrate food that is fat rather than skimmed (Is 25:6). Gluttony may be bad, but feasting is good!

Of course, some of Rotheram’s larger citizens might be gluttonous, but 21st century style gluttony is much more complex and nuanced than simply eating too much. Gluttony, it seems to me, is involved whenever there is an undue focus on the body and food – when salvation is in someway seen to reside in what we do or do not put into the body. For the traditionally imagined glutton this is obvious – the never ending troughing that is more about fulfilling an existential need than a dietary requirement. But the skinny contestant on Masterchef who waxes lyrically, “My passion is food!” appears to me more guilty of gluttony than the person who is overweight simply because they are careless of what they eat. Similarly, some of my triathlete friends are gluttons, in the sense that they constantly obsess about ‘nutrition’. The non-glutton eats his food with thankfulness, but without too much introspection.

The charge that the church should speak more about gluttony and less about sexuality is a heaving portion of hog-wash. Actually the two things are closely connected, as indicated by Paul’s instructions on food and sex in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. The thing is that the western world is full of fat people who are not gluttons and thin people who are, while the general sexual climate is to scoff at the notion that, “the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” because the very idea of sexual immorality is considered risible. The people of Rotheram have had no end of advice about diet and exercise. The people of the world need to be shown the health benefits of a consistent sexual ethic. The people of the Church need to live in a manner that “glorifies God in our bodies”, which means we are willing to hack down our idols, whatever form they disguise themselves in. What we do with our bodies is not indifferent; far from it. But the real question is to what is our personal god. And whether I am fat or thin, straight or gay, the gravity of my decisions will get me in the end.


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Augustine on Scripture

One of the things that really cheeses me off is the claim, widespread in some circles today, that believing in the complete truthfulness of the Bible is a modern development, prompted by Enlightenment rationalism, pedantic Princetonians and an obsession with trivial detail. It smacks of Bulverism - C. S. Lewis's word for responding to an argument not by refuting it, but by explaining why the speaker might believe it - and it is also palpably false. Here's Augustine writing to Jerome (Letter 82):

For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error ... (82.3)

But you will say it is better to believe that the Apostle Paul wrote what was not true, than to believe that the Apostle Peter did what was not right. On this principle, we must say (which far be it from us to say), that it is better to believe that the gospel history is false, than to believe that Christ was denied by Peter; and better to charge the book of Kings with false statements, than believe that so great a prophet, and one so signally chosen by the Lord God as David was, committed adultery in lusting after and taking away the wife of another, and committed such detestable homicide in procuring the death of her husband. Better far that I should read with certainty and persuasion of its truth the Holy Scripture, placed on the highest (even the heavenly) pinnacle of authority, and should, without questioning the trustworthiness of its statements, learn from it that men have been either commended, or corrected, or condemned, than that, through fear of believing that by men, who, though of most praiseworthy excellence, were no more than men, actions deserving rebuke might sometimes be done, I should admit suspicions affecting the trustworthiness of the whole oracles of God. (82.5)

Now: this doesn’t make Augustine a modernist, and I’d be the first to point out that his interpretation of many texts would baffle many inerrantists. But he was pretty emphatic that the scriptures never made mistakes. He who has ears, let him hear.

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Molinism v Calvinism: Some Reflections on Bill Craig’s Debate with Paul Helm

Recently, on Justin Brierley’s radio show Unbelievable, there was an intriguing debate between Paul Helm, one of the world’s leading Calvinist theologians, and William Lane Craig, the well-known apologist and Molinist philosopher. The debate raised so many important issues, and featured such big hitters on both sides, that I thought a brief summary might be worthwhile. (Full disclosure: I am a Molinist myself, and make no claim to be unbiased here!) You can listen to the whole debate here.

Divine Foreknowledge

Helm’s biggest problem with Molinism appears to be how God could know future free actions: he states he does not understand how it could work. Craig, by way of response, suggests that 1 Corinthians 10:13 indicates that there are different possibilities to our actions, and refers to the clear existence of examples of subjunctive conditionals (or “counterfactual conditionals”), which are statements of the form “if ... then ...” in Scripture. Helm admits there are subjunctive conditionals in Scripture, but repeats his complaint that he does not know how God can know future free actions – particularly, how such actions can be free if God does know them in advance. (Unfortunately there is a break in the show at this point and they don’t return to this issue when they return, which is profoundly annoying).

Helm’s criticism appears most curious to me. Even many professional atheist philosophers agree there is no problem with God foreknowing future free actions, either because there appears to be no obvious logical inconsistency on the face of it, or because there are possible explanations depending on one’s theory of time. So it appears somewhat odd to me that Helm would, on this contentious point, appear to claim some mystery or contradiction, as if it causes Molinism some huge problem. If he thinks holding both are logically inconsistent, then he must either make the case to demonstrate such a thing (which he does not), or he must explain how they are mysterious. The charge of a belief having elements of mystery to it will be far less damaging to Molinism than to Calvinism, however, since most Calvinists admit to moments of mystery in their own theology.

Moral Responsibility

Helm is asked about how humans can be responsible for their wickedness if their wickedness is foreordained by God. He replies that “they were the choosers”, in the sense that the people themselves choose evil. He says he does not understand the charge that God is the author of sin if one is a Calvinist (which I find odd, for a philosopher and scholar of Helm’s reputation!) Craig explains that if (as many Calvinists think, including Helm) God causally conditions our wills then he is the reason the person sins, and therefore there is some charge to be brought against God. Craig explains that this view appears to impugn the goodness of God. Helm replies that he accepts Calvinism holds a view that God determines what takes place, but in order to answer the charge of God causing evil events to take place, he suggests that people must understand that God permits (yes, he actually uses that word) evil, and he says that God is “respecting the wills of people.”

They touch briefly on the problem of people who do not hear the gospel in their lifetime, as Helm thinks this is more problematic for Molinism than for Calvinism. Craig justifies his view based on Acts 17: God has providence over where people live, according to his foreknowledge, such that he knows how they would react in any and every given situation. Helm was, in my opinion, let off the hook here. He subscribes to compatibilist Calvinism (the view that divine determination and human responsibility are compatible), but the way he talks of “permission” and the “will” of human beings made him sound almost Arminian. I was dying to hear Helm comment on this severe problem, but he offered no comment whatsoever. The borrowing of the term “permission” also appears odd to me. Many Calvinists refuse to use such language at all. What on earth does Helm mean when he says that God “respects” the wills of fallen people? How can God only “tolerate” what God sovereignly decrees?

Total Depravity

Helm claims that Craig could not hold to the strong view of depravity as found in the Westminster Confession (which, in my view, is another very odd thing for a scholar to say, as one would have expected such a person to have read documents such as the Articles of Remonstrance which take a very strong view of human depravity). Craig points out that virtually all non-Calvinists believe in total depravity, and he explains how the doctrine of prevenient grace helps to explain how humans can respond to the gospel. Helm replies with the standard Calvinist view that God is the only agent involved (either actively or passively) in conversion, but I note this is not a reason for thinking the non-Calvinist view is incorrect or unbiblical. Helm also takes the standard Calvinist view that it takes something away from God (his sovereignty) if God is not the only agent involved in salvation. For his part, Craig “strongly rejects” the charge that Molinism or Arminianism lead to a type of synergism which means humans can take credit for their salvation, citing Ephesians 2:8 in support, and pointing out that in the New Testament “faith” is not considered to be a “work”. Helm replies that Craig must admit that the non-Calvinist is “contributing something” to the process, and explains that this is what he takes issue with. Craig affirms there is some contribution, but that does not make it a meritorious action, and therefore salvation is still completely by grace through faith. Craig makes it clear it is just a passive acceptance of a free gift, and Helm asks what “energizes” the acceptance. [Again, the programme breaks at this point, which is extremely annoying because this was a key moment well worth exploring. Arghhhh!]

It appears to me that asking, as Helm does, what “energizes” the acceptance is the wrong question. There is a sense in which nothing is energized without God, in some ultimate sense, but the question should be whether God permits his energy to be used for AND against his will (that is to say – can his grace be resisted?) Now, since Helm has already admitted (and I do mean “admitted”, since not all Calvinists like the term “permission” when referring to God having two wills) that God permits certain things to take place which are against his will, it appears clear that the issue is not the energy but the source of that decision. Is the decision made by God, or by a human, at that point of conversion?

Romans 8-9 and the Golden Chain

They then turn to Paul’s famous “golden chain”: foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, glorifying. Craig notes that the first link in the chain is foreknowledge, and so argues that this is not a problem text for the Molinist. Helm, of course, disagrees and says that this knowledge is merely knowledge “of his [God’s] own mind”. When asked about double predestination at this point, Helm answers that God is benevolent in a way we don’t understand. Craig says the primary sense of election in Romans is corporate, and it should be taken individually only in a secondary sense. Helm says the passage is about God’s choice and not man’s choice, and that man has no say in salvation.

Unfortunately, this part of the debate was incredibly short, so we don’t get a real sense of the debate about how to interpret Romans 9 – and since neither Craig or Helm got sufficient time to lay out their views, we must not be too critical. It would appear that Craig would accept some kind of individual election (possibly even to salvation?), although of course he would preface this reading by saying it was according to God’s foreknowledge, understood in a Molinist “middle knowledge” way. I have to say: I cannot see how Calvinists can complain against that interpretation on exegetical grounds alone.  Is it possible to render the Greek of Romans “that which God foreknew…”? If so, surely that knowledge becomes the subject of the predestining / calling and so on – in which case this verse makes very little sense, on Helm’s reading. Also, I note that Helm brings in the mystery card at this point, something he was very critical of at the beginning of the discussion when it didn’t suit him. Many Calvinists do this, of course – but until they devise some logical rationale for employing appeals to mystery, it will always seem like a case of special pleading to me that they do so.

Final Remarks

Helm is concerned about God’s sovereignty – what Calvinist isn’t? – and he feels that Molinism is “messy” in its view on God’s sovereignty. Craig explains there are some worlds that are unfeasible even for God to create: for example, a world in which there is genuine moral free will and in which there is also no suffering, since that is not a logically possible world to create. Helm replies by saying that he does not like the idea that God might have chosen a particular world instead of choosing him individually, and that God’s love for us is no longer direct but impersonal as a result. Craig disagrees, and states clearly that God does love the individuals he creates; in fact, God loves those individuals so much that he allows them to have some say over which subjective conditionals come to pass. Craig affirms that God can create a world which is deterministic (in the sense that God knows all that will happen before it happens), and that God’s sovereignty is not compromised. Helm argues, again, that this view limits God’s sovereignty.

I think Craig misses a trick here (although time was short and the end was rushed). Helm is claiming that God is somehow limited, on the basis that God cannot appear to create certain types of worlds. But other philosophers, such as Jerry Walls, have pointed out that even the Calvinist appears to think there are certain worlds God cannot create as well – like a world where he is not glorified through the existence of suffering and evil – yet they do not see this as a slur on divine sovereignty. I would have liked to have heard Helm’s response to that charge since, I believe, the Calvinist has to admit that there are limitations on God’s sovereignty even in the Calvinist scheme.

Anyway – that’s how I saw it from my biased perspective! What about yourself?

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Carl Sagan, Paltry Icons and Image Bearers

Creation has a way of making you feel small, doesn’t it? Last Sunday I was preaching on Psalm 8 and this fact hit me again. Compared to this universe, I am really pretty minuscule.

There are around 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone… give or take a few billion! Just last week scientists claimed to have mapped the universe to within 1% accuracy and believe they have counted over 1.2 million galaxies. 1.2 million x 400 billion. Do the maths… That’s a lot of noughts.

How tiny does that make you feel?

Light travels pretty quickly. In fact, it moves so fast it could orbit the earth 7.4 times every second. Imagine light setting off at that kind of speed in a straight line. One light year – the distance light travels in a year – is about 5.9 trillion miles. If you tried to walk a light year at an average pace of 20 minutes per mile, without stopping for food, rest or any other comfort break, it would take you 225 million years to complete your journey – and who’s got time for that? The average pair of shoes lasts 500 miles, which means you’d get through 11.8 billion pairs on your journey and the average adult burns 80 calories a mile so you’d need about 2 trillion energy bars to keep you going!

In short, don’t bother…

To give you an idea of distances, the sun is less than a light year away. A lot less. In fact, it takes light 8 minutes and 19 seconds to travel the distance from the Sun to the Earth. So if you set off on your light year journey you would reach the sun relatively quickly and then you’d be a bit disappointed after that because the next closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.22 light years away from the sun. And in the grand scheme of things, 4.22 light years isn’t even very far, since scientists believe they have mapped the universe up to 6 billion light years away.

How astonishingly minute does that make you feel?

No wonder the Psalmist, observing creation, is staggered that given how minuscule mankind is and how little of God’s world we occupy, He is mindful of us. He even cares about us.

‘When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8:3-4)

Over Christmas Channel 4 aired the first episode of Bear’s Wild Weekends, in which Stephen Fry spent a weekend hanging out of helicopters and climbing down waterfalls with Bear Grylls. And there was a beautiful moment on a mountaintop where the two of them shared their views on life and faith. Surrounded by astonishing scenery, Stephen Fry, a self-confessed Atheist, commented:

“I suppose there’s a danger of getting very pretentious when you’re in a vast landscape like this, because it does make you think. All the imponderable questions come tumbling into your mind don’t they?”

They do indeed. The Universe has a way of making you feel really very small and provoking the kinds of questions we spend much of our lives suppressing: is there something more?

In The Varieties of Scientific Experience, The Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote,

‘Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large, and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that’s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small. It’s after an exercise such as this that many people conclude that the religious sensibility is inevitable.’

He’s right. We don’t need paltry icons to tell us how small we are. Just look up. Observe the stars. See how many you can count. That ought to do it. And it’s no great leap from beholding the hugeness of creation to questioning whether there might be a Creator? But hold that thought…

David continues:

‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.’ (Psalm 8:3-8)

As if it weren’t mind-blowing enough that God cares for us, the Psalmist begins to reflect on the nature of God’s relationship to mankind and he finds himself returning to the creation mandate:

‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Mankind – male and female – was created with a purpose, to rule over Creation: to subdue the parts of this world that cause clutter and disorder, and to bring out the good in it. Genesis describes mankind being made in God’s image. In His likeness. Hence crowned with glory and honour. That word ‘image’ means a whole host of things, but at the least it means this – we were made to be like God in our care for and cultivation of this world. To bring order and beauty out of it, as if we were doing the very curating role that God Himself might do.

Again, hold that thought, and pop back to the Carl Sagan quote for a moment. Religions often make statues to remind us how small we are. But if that’s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons! One word in that quote particularly leapt out to me. ‘Icon’.

An icon is something that points beyond itself to a greater spiritual reality, with the express purpose of helping you to perceive that reality as it truly is and worship as a result. The church tradition of which I’m part doesn’t typically have much space for iconography. It’s not something I’ve ever found especially helpful, truth be told. But in various settings over the years I’ve heard people be extremely negative about icons, calling them a form of idolatry. Well, I’m not so sure… In his recent book Playing God, Andy Crouch helpfully delineates between icon and idol thus:

‘An icon is an image freighted with divine significance [...] Like an idol, an icon is an image that claims to present ultimate truth. But unlike an idol, an icon tells the truth about ultimate reality.’

What does this have to do with Psalm 8? The Psalm doesn’t use the word icon, after all. Well, icon is a Greek word (eikōn) which means this: ‘image’.

So in a sense Sagan’s right - if the purpose of icons is remind us how small we are, they’re of relatively little value. Look up - the heavens should do the trick! But if we observe creation as David does, with reverence and childlike awe, it should also remind us this: we are icons. We are His icon; made in His image.

And perhaps, just perhaps, as we play our image-bearing role - cultivating creation as we were designed to - people might look at us as icons and indeed look beyond us to the spiritual reality to which our lives point. And perhaps they may join us in worship of the Creator.

Rule like an image bearer. Live like an icon.

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Gluttony, Homosexuality and Rachel Held Evans

Rachel Held Evans wrote a fascinating piece for the Huffington Post recently, about gluttony and homosexuality. Her point was that, for all that we hear in the media and in Christian discourse about homosexuality – and in America in particular, that’s a lot – we hear very little about gluttony, a sin which the scriptures speak about at least as frequently, and perhaps even more so. In her well-written and extremely thought-provoking way, she explores why this might be. She may not include all the relevant factors (and she may not have intended to), but one insight in particular is well worth taking on board.

First, here’s her diagnosis of the problem:

Heck, you could make a pretty good biblical case for gluttony being a “lifestyle sin” that has been normalized by our culture of “Supersized” portions and overflowing buffet lines, starting with passages like Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”), Psalm 78: 18 (“they tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved”), Proverbs 23:20 (“be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat”), Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”), or better yet, Ezekiel 16:49 (“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”) Yet you don’t see weigh-ins preceding baptisms or people holding “God Hates Gluttons” signs outside the den of iniquity that is Ryan’s Steakhouse.

Indeed you don’t. Part of that, as she subsequently points out, is that there is a difference between being large and being gluttonous – some people just cannot help putting on weight more easily than others – and indeed between eating at Ryan’s Steakhouse and being gluttonous. But then comes this:

It seems the more ubiquitous the biblical violation, the more invisible it becomes.

Which is surely true. The first time I noticed this was when I was in Ukraine, and a local pastor thought nothing of changing money on the black market to get a better rate (which I would never do), even though he was passionately opposed to Christians drinking any alcohol at all (which I would do most days). It prompted me to make a habit of asking visitors to the UK, especially Christians, what things about Britain they find most out of step with the Bible; most of them say greed, which is closely related to Rachel’s point here. When everyone is doing something, nobody notices what the Bible says about it. The causality doubtless flows two ways here, but it’s a point well made. She continues:

I can’t help but wonder if biblical condemnation is often a numbers game. Though it affects more of us than we tend to realize, statistically, homosexuality affects far fewer of us than gluttony, materialism, or divorce. And as Jesus pointed out so often in his ministry, we like to focus on the biblical violations (real or perceived) of the minority rather than our own ... It’s hard for me to flatly condemn divorce, for example, when I know of several women whose lives, and the lives of their children, may have been saved by it, or when I hear from people who tell me they would have rather come from a broken home than grown up in one. We have a natural revulsion to the idea of checking people’s BMI before accepting them into the Church, especially when obesity is not necessarily reflective of gluttony (often, in this country, it is a result of poverty), and when we know from our own experiences or the experiences of those we love that an unhealthy weight can result from a variety of factors—from genetics to psychological components—and when some of our favorite people in the world (or when we ourselves) wrestle with a complicated relationship with food, whether it’s through overeating or under-eating.

Now, a paragraph like that could pull in one of two directions. It could mean, “Hey, what are you worried about gay sex for, guys? You don’t worry about gluttony or greed or divorce, after all.” If it means that, then the whole post is deeply troubling, since it effectively amounts to removing the doctrine of sin from the Bible, and saying that since we don’t worry about X, we shouldn’t worry about anything. But what I hope it means is: “Hey, everyone – by all means speak out against gay sex, but don’t forget to address the sins (gluttony, greed, divorce or whatever) that your family and friends struggle with, too. Planks and specks, people!” Assuming that’s what it means, it’s a hugely important challenge. There are, after all, an awful lot of Christians who have no problem with getting divorced and remarried for unbiblical reasons, but have a huge problem with gay sex. Much of this, as Rachel points out, is to do with the number of people you know who have struggled with each issue. She concludes:

Again, it’s a numbers game. It’s hard to “other” the people we know and love the most. It’s become a cliché, but everything changes when it’s your brother or sister who gets divorced, when it’s your son or daughter who is gay, when it’s your best friend who struggles with addiction, when it’s your husband or wife asking some good questions about Christianity you never thought about before.

Of course, this isn’t the whole story. There are several reasons we hear more about gay sex than gluttony. One is that it’s what secular journalists always want to ask Christians about. Another is that it has been in the news a lot because of changes in the law anyway, irrespective of what Christians are and aren’t saying or doing about it. Another is that it’s something that a number of professing Christians are saying is not sinful at all, which makes it something that needs explaining and defending (I am unaware of any Christian who has gone on record saying that gluttony is fine, for example, and I’ve not been invited to any radio debates with any prominent “progressives” on the legitimacy of greed recently). Another is that it is possible to be gluttonous or greedy without realising it, whereas it is not possible to have sex with someone of the same gender as you and not realise it. But another is the point Rachel raises here: we are happier speaking out against things which affect people we don’t know, than things which affect people we do. And if we rebuke sins that others have while condoning the ones we (or our loved ones) have, then we struggle with two of the biggest sins there are – hypocrisy and cowardice – and need to repent ourselves before we start throwing stones.

So I think Rachel is basically right. No doubt some could use this line of argument to deconstruct sin altogether – since you don’t confront X and Y properly, then you should shut up about Z – and leave everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. But if used wisely – since you (rightly) confront Z, which most of your friends don’t struggle with, then you should probably also confront X and Y, which many of your friends do struggle with – it’s a hugely helpful challenge. Planks and specks, people.

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Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, by Preston Sprinkle

Liam and Andrew have already given rave notices for this book and, in the light of their enthusiasm, I felt it was one I couldn’t ignore. My own journey on questions of war has been from an unreflective assumption of the appropriateness of Christians engaging in violence in a just cause, to an almost-pacifist position. I hoped that Sprinkle might nudge me more conclusively one way or another.

Having a pacifist position articulated by someone who, “hunted, fished, voted Republican, and chewed tobacco,” lends the case a certain credibility! However, there are a few statements and claims made by Sprinkle that somewhat undermine this. Describing the zoologist Richard Dawkins as a “philosopher” is a case in point, and Preston makes some generalisations which may not stand scrutiny, and cause someone of my sceptical turn of mind to then question some of his other claims. For example, “There’s the escalation of violent crimes: homicide, rape, and torture.” Really? Where is the evidence for that? In fact, there is compelling evidence that the world is a far less violent place than used to be the case. (See Steven Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’.) And then the quite incredible claim, twice repeated, that “nearly six million civilians…have died as a result of covert CIA operations.” I haven’t been able to check all Sprinkle’s sources for this figure but it seems to be found in conspiracy theory internet sites rather than in more credible sources. I also think Sprinkle rehashes a popularist view of the crusades, which doesn’t really do justice to the facts. (See Rodney Stark’s ‘God’s Battalions’.) Now, Fight, is written for a general, rather than scholarly audience, so I don’t want to be too pernickety, but these kinds of things bug me.

Turning to the substance of his argument, Sprinkle’s investigation of the Old Testament, showing how it is much less bloodthirsty than we might imagine is intriguing. It is helpful to see how much less violent Israel was than the surrounding nations; and his main point that God was the one who fought Israel’s battles is crucial. I am currently preaching through the book of Judges and seeing how the danger was that Israel should become Canaanized rather than Canaan become Israelized is crucial for understanding the story. As Sprinkle shows, a significant part of Canaanization was the reliance on military technology and a standing army – something that YHWH warns Israel against. However, in proving his point Sprinkle is prone to overegg the pudding. For example, he gives a very damning summary of the careers of Samson and Jepthah, but of course, those two judges are commended in Hebrews 11 as models of faith. Again, it is this kind of over generalisation that caused me to lose some sympathy for Sprinkle’s case.

The most oft-cited New Testament passage regarding the role of the state is Romans 13 and Sprinkle offers a thorough, though not entirely convincing, study of what Paul’s instructions here do and don’t mean. Sprinkle states that, “Romans 13 does not speak of Rome’s warfare policy against foreign nations, but of its police and judicial action toward its own citizens.” I think this is correct, but also that it is hard to prove conclusively. Rome was an expansive state, and Paul says nothing about that. I’m not sure any Roman would have seen a difference between the ‘bearing of the sword’ in policing a troublesome part of the empire or in broadening the edge of that empire; I think the whole piece would have been considered ‘homeland security’, so the distinction between policing and soldiering would have been very blurry. Romans 13 is much debated, and a pacifist reading of it leads to the question with which Preston concludes the chapter in which it is discussed: “Can a Christian be a cop?” Frustratingly though, Sprinkle does not answer this question for another 176 pages, and then doesn’t deal with it in the context of what Romans 13 does or does not say.

The next chapter focuses on the book of Revelation and here Sprinkle seeks to demonstrate that it provides no mandate for Christians to engage in violence. I agree with him, but, for me, some of his exegesis rather undermines the broader point. This is especially the case in his understanding of the ‘grapes’ of Revelation 14. Rather than seeing this as the enemies of God who will be crushed, Sprinkle argues that they refer to the saints who are martyred. I’m not sure this is convincing – it doesn’t seem to tally with Revelation 19:15 where it is Jesus who is treading the winepress, nor with the Old Testament parallels, such as Joel 3:13. Sprinkle says that, “Whether the blood is symbolic of judgment or symbolic of martyrdom leading to judgment doesn’t make a huge difference for my main point,” which left me stroking my chin.

While I appreciated Sprinkle’s critique of Mark Driscoll’s vision of a cage-fighter Jesus in Revelation, I wonder if, despite his self-proclaimed redneck credentials, his approach is governed in part by a distaste towards violence which means he wants to interpret obviously violent texts in a pacific way. For instance, Sprinkle’s statement that, “Revelation doesn’t depict Jesus hacking His way through enemy lines but rather speaking a word of judgment that condemns His enemies to everlasting destruction.” Other than the emotiveness of the language, I’m not sure what the practical difference is between being hacked to pieces and everlastingly destroyed. Both sound equally grim to me.

Sprinkle’s exploration of the attitude of the early church is solid. The apparent pacifist unanimity of pre-Constantine authors is striking, and was a major factor in pushing me towards a pacifist position. His treatment of practical questions is also useful, dealing, among other things, with ‘the attacker at the door’, whether a Christian can kill in self-defence, and that delayed discussion of whether a Christian can be cop. Sprinkle ends up in a fairly Anabaptist position on these questions, and it is here that my own commitment to pacifism begins to waver. I’m just not convinced that the kind of cultural and societal disengagement Anabaptism seems to lead to is biblically faithful. Sprinkle fails to engage with wider questions of the nature of the state and what this might mean for Christian engagement with it, especially in the context of democracy. To my mind the application of Romans 13 is rather different in a society where power ultimately resides in the people than in a dictator.

I agree with Sprinkle’s appeal to base our ethics on foundational principles, rather than on ‘ifs’ and ‘perhaps’ and his critique of just war theory is helpful in this regard. However, as well as the many negative consequences of military action he cites, there are some positive ones which he ignores. For instance, Operation Barras, in which the intervention of British troops hastened the end of civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000; or the on going Operation Serval in which French troops have prevented an Islamic takeover of Mali. A strong case could be made that a similarly professional military intervention in the current chaos of the Central African Republic would do more good than harm.

This is an excellent book, one I would encourage every Christ follower to read. Whenever I teach on Christian ethics I am always disappointed that in response to the question, “Who is inclined towards pacifism?” few, if any, hands are raised. I agree with Sprinkle that the default Christian position should be pacifist and that it should be those arguing a different position who really need to prove their point. But I’m still not all there myself, and in that sense somewhat disappointed that Fight didn’t sway me further.

I’m planning to visit SoCal in June – Preston, if you’ve got any time, I’d love to connect and discuss these things further. Just leave the chewing tobacco out of the conversation!

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An Overview of the Old Testament

Here's a summary of the Old Testament in ten minutes, which those of you who teach might find useful:

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What is Election?

The other day, in response to a book review here, Alastair Roberts made an extremely interesting point in one of the comments. There's a decent chance that very few readers will have noticed it, especially since it came in late, so I'm reposting it here. It concerns the nature and referent of election language in Paul (emphasis added):

The group of people that Paul was addressing was visible and known. Paul’s letter was probably read out before the church(es) and it is hard to maintain that they would not have been understood as addressing the churches in general and to all of their members. By contrast, election is typically taught as a doctrine in Reformed circles, but it is seldom that one hears pastors addressing their churches, declaring that *they* are elect. It seems to me that this is what Paul is doing here. This is far more specific than most Reformed Christians are prepared to get.

While the elect are an entire humanity—the new humanity—not every human being is elect. Only those who are in Christ are elect. While most Reformed doctrines of election leave us uncertain about who exactly is elect, my argument is that the identity of the elect is clear in Paul’s theology (see Philippians 4:3, for instance). If you are a member of the body of Christ, the family chosen before the foundation of the world in its head, Jesus, you are elect. Until you are united to Christ, however, you are not elect.

In Ephesians 1, as elsewhere, election is not the timeless teaching that God has selected a number of individuals out of the mass of humanity for salvation, but that from the very outset God determined to form a glorious humanity and family in his Son and that now, in the fullness of time, he has done so and that *we* are that humanity and family.

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Questions on Kalashnikov

As you probably spotted at the tail end of 2013, Mikhail Kalashnikov passed away at the ripe old age of 94. It was a rather peculiar selection of photos that graced the pages of our papers over the Christmas period – an old man brandishing an assault rifle. How very festive!

As well as being standard issue for the Soviet Armed Forces, his creation (or its offspring) was certainly popular with a certain crowd; the favoured weapon of pirates and cartels. In fact, there is estimated to be one Kalashnikov rifle for every 70 people in the world. So come on - statistically speaking around 75 of you blog readers are likely to be AK-47 owners! Own up…

It was fascinating to read this article about how Mikhail Kalashnikov appeared to develop a sense of uneasiness about his creation in his final days.

“My aim was to create armaments to protect the borders of my motherland,” Mr Kalashnikov once protested. “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov was used in many troubled places. I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the designers.” [...]

In a letter to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in May 2012, Mr Kalashnikov said he was in “spiritual pain” over the number of deaths his invention may have been responsible for, and revealed that he had first gone to church at the age of 91, and had himself baptised.

In the letter, published by the pro-Kremlin Izvestia newspaper, Mr Kalashnikov wrote: “My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? The longer I live the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

Whatever your view on war and violence more generally (I’m sure by now my own bias is hardly a secret!) this raises a few questions and I’m curious to know how you’d answer them…

  • Do you think Kalashnikov is to blame for the deaths caused by his weapon?

  • All of them, or only some?

  • Does he share a percentage of blame for every death caused, or only the ones caused in non-combative settings?

  • Or is his creation a morally-neutral item which, in the hands of evil men, was (mis)used for murderous purposes? Somewhat like a breadknife.

  • If so, in what way could the rifle have been properly used, in a non-immoral way?

  • Is Kalashnikov right that nations should be blamed for their policies that allowed the (mis?)-use of these weapons?

  • Or can they wash their hands and pass the culpability one rung further down, to the individual gun-users themselves?

  • Are the envy, greed and aggression that M.K. laments only present in the hearts of those who sold and abused the guns, or might they also have motivated the designers and producers of the weapons?

  • Is it inevitable that these devilish desires (which the Lord permitted!) would have manifested themselves in some other equally violent way had Mikhail not provided the world with a simple, effective, affordable weapon?

  • Is it naïve to imagine that there would have been fewer violent deaths had the AK-47 never been created?

  • Would you have raised the subject of Kalashnikov’s prize creation, had he come to your church, requesting baptism?

  • And how would you have answered him, had he raised these concerns to you in his dying moments?

  • Discuss…

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    Is Definite Atonement Really Like the Trinity? A Reply to David Gibson

    I am so grateful for David Gibson's careful and detailed response to my review of From Heaven He Came And Sought Her. It takes a lot of character, and a lot of time, to engage critical reviewers on their own turf, and I am so pleased David has done this. In the hope of shortening the responses significantly, I'm not going to reply to all of his points, or defend my review against everything he claims. But there are a few key points that I couldn't just leave hanging.

    I actually agree with a huge amount of David’s response. No, wait: I already did, in the opening few sentences of my original article, in which I said (1) that the book deserved a full review, but that I was not going to provide it, because (2) I was focused on the question of whether any biblical writer taught this doctrine, and (3) that much of the book wasn’t, so (4) we risked talking at cross-purposes, and therefore (5) I was going to skim quickly over much of it. If (1) and (5) make me “hasty”, and (2), (3) and (4) make me “biblicist” (which, I should say, I don’t think they do), then I can live with that for now. But I was completely up front about that - believing then, as I still do, that most readers of my review are asking one of their four questions (is this taught by any biblical writer?) rather than the other three (is it historically grounded, [theo]logically deductible from other doctrines, and practically relevant?) - and as such, I think significant chunks of David’s review are unfair in their insinuation that I was trying to hide all this from the reader. Every review says something about the reviewer as well as something about the book; I make no apologies for doing this, and would suggest that not doing it is impossible, so I explained what I would and wouldn’t be doing at the start.

    That said, I deny misrepresenting Jonathan Gibson; the point I was making was precisely that the authors admitted their doctrine was not “biblical”, even though they did believe it was biblically defensible (using the slightly clunky word “biblico-systematic” for this). This, for me, was an important point to note in the wider conversation - one that is often denied by advocates of definite atonement, including in the apparently contradictory statement David and Jonathan make that their approach should be “biblical, not biblicist” - so I wanted to highlight the importance of the concession. (David’s use of these words is confusing at times; see below). Similarly with Haykin on Clement: my contention is that “Jesus died for us / the sheep / the elect” in no way requires us to affirm “Jesus died only for us / the sheep / the elect”, and as such does not imply definite atonement - which is exactly what I said. To call these “inaccurate representations” is thus rather unfair. I admit that my summary of Dan Strange’s chapter was based on what I found most significant, rather than what he intended to address, for which my apologies to both him and the editors. But the reason I said “only three” writers are believed to teach definite atonement is not because that is somehow insufficient to form a doctrine, but because so much of the book is about writers who, the authors appear to admit, do not teach it. (I would have thought this was obvious). Further, on Isaiah 53, the fact that Yahweh has laid the sins of the whole nation on the servant has nothing to do with whether the servant ended up dying for only some Gentiles - and I find it hard to believe anyone could think it did - which is why I largely ignored that point. And I never said, or implied, that most of the book was not about the Bible; I said it was not about whether the doctrine was taught by any biblical writers. If you read (say) Henri Blocher or Garry Williams’s chapters, you’ll see what I mean.

    The disagreement between us, then, concerns how we do theology (the charge of being “biblicist” rather than “biblical”). My assumptions here are twofold: firstly that, if no biblical writer teaches a doctrine, we should not be including it as a necessary part of our theological system, whether or not we should be writing seven hundred page books about it; and secondly, that doing theology is a question of, in Steve Holmes’s words, “imagining what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true.” If this debate provokes further discussion on how we do theology, I think that would be a very good thing.

    At times, in his response, David sounds like he agrees with the first point, and believes the doctrine is taught by one or more biblical writers; at other times, it sounds like he concedes that it isn’t, but thinks that isn’t a necessary requirement for a doctrine to be explicitly taught anyway - a tension that, in my reading, exists in the book as well - citing the divinity of the Spirit (despite 2 Corinthians 3:17 et al) and justification by faith alone (don’t get me started) as examples. But throughout his response, he seems to me (and I hope I’m reading him wrongly here) to set up the only alternatives as (1) a naive biblicism that requires a direct quotation to affirm a doctrine, which is how he (very unfairly) characterises my view, and (2) his view, which I could (equally unfairly) characterise as a highly framework-driven web of extrabiblical (and, in the case of 1 John 2 and 2 Peter 2, antibiblical) logical deductions that allow us to affirm all sorts of things that none of the biblical authors touched with a bargepole. These are not, of course, our only options.

    The way I want us to do theology is (3): to give primacy to the truths and doctrines that are clearly affirmed by the biblical writers, synthesising them where necessary (as per Steve Holmes’s remark), and to give primacy to the questions that are clearly asked and answered in Scripture. To describe this approach, my review or my theology in general as “only interested in selective trails and individual strands” is, I think, unduly harsh. The idea that Christ died for the sins of the elect alone, by anyone’s reckoning, is not affirmed in Scripture - as some contributors seem to recognise - and seems in two texts to be explicitly denied (a point on which David has not responded, which is strange since it seems to be at the heart of the discussion). Consequently, I don’t think it should be part of our theological framework.

    The fact that this is controversial is remarkable in itself. “Biblicism” is something of a push-button word these days, which people often use when they’re trying to accuse someone of interpretive incompetence; being “biblical”, on the other hand, is the holy grail of evangelical scholarship. But David’s use of “biblicist” to describe my approach is never defined; at times it seems to mean “Andrew is a biblicist (boo, hiss) because he requires the biblical writers to teach a doctrine before including it as part of his theological system.” If that is the charge against me, then I can only hope it sticks. At other times, it means “Andrew is a biblicist because he believes that teaching a doctrine requires actually saying something about it somewhere.” Well: call me old-fashioned, but yes, I do.

    David thinks this founders for an interesting reason: definite atonement, in principle, is like the divinity of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is a doctrine we reach by synthesising propositions which sit below the surface of the text, without requiring them to be explicitly stated.

    But the reality is that definite atonement is strikingly unlike the divinity of the Holy Spirit. There are plenty of texts in the scriptures that do not make any sense unless the divinity of the Spirit is affirmed, which is not true of definite atonement. Were someone to deny the divinity of the Spirit, it would cause all sorts of exegetical and theological problems, which is not true of definite atonement. The divinity of the Spirit has to overcome no texts which seem to state the opposite, which is not true of definite atonement. There are biblical writers - Paul is the most obvious - whose theology cannot be understood properly without affirming their belief in the divinity of the Spirit, which is not true of definite atonement. The divinity of the Spirit has therefore been uncontroversial in orthodox Christianity for nearly two millennia, which is not true of definite atonement. The comparison, which David makes to show how defensible his theological method is, I suggest does the opposite.

    His example of sola fide is closer to the mark, but again, in a way that makes my point rather than David’s. His argument, as I read it, runs: (i) the idea that Christ died for the elect alone is not clearly stated in Scripture, and seems to be contradicted by one or two texts, and (ii) the same is true for the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but (iii) Protestants have trumpeted the doctrine of justification by faith alone anyway, without having the charge of resembling the Cheshire Cat thrown at them, so (iv) there should be no problem with affirming definite atonement either. QED.

    Yeah, but. It should be said than an awful lot of Protestants do deserve to have the Cheshire Cat thrown at them for their exegesis of James 2 (and 2 Peter 2, and Hebrews 6 and 10, and various others). We should also note that “a man is justified by faith alone” is a shorthand, albeit a controversial one, for another expression which appears frequently in Paul - “a man is justified by faith and not by works of the law” (Gal 2:16; cf. 3:2; Rom 3:27-8; 9:32; Eph 2:8-9; etc) - and this is not even remotely true of the statement “Christ died for the elect alone”. And then there is the uncomfortable fact that many Protestants, eager to defend their extrabiblical slogan in the face of both Catholicism and TomWrightism, have produced exegesis of Paul himself, not least in Romans 2, which look like the Cheshire Cat has swallowed Alice and the Queen of Hearts for good measure; Tom Schreiner, to his great credit, is one of those who has been active in talking them down off the ledge. As such, a comparison between definite atonement and sola fide does not lead to the conclusion David is hoping for.

    So, from my perspective, three questions for David remain. One: do you think that any biblical writer (or speaker, to make sure we are including Jesus!) taught that Christ died for his people alone, and if so, which one(s), and where? (I’d be happy to do a similar exercise for the divinity of Christ and/or the Holy Spirit, and/or sola fide ...!) Two: which parts of the Bible do you think we would be treating as untrue, if we stopped short of affirming that he did? Three, do you think that any biblical writers (or speakers) were even asking this question (did Christ die for his people alone?) If so, where? If not, why are you?

    In the meantime, if anyone has any thoughts on which non-biblical systematic-theological questions are legitimate, and which ones aren’t, I’m all ears!

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    For the Bible Tells Me So? A response to Andrew Wilson’s review of From Heaven He Came

    David Gibson, the editor of From Heaven He Came And Sought Her which I reviewed last week, has graciously written a response to my review, and allowed us to post it here. I'll post my response tomorrow.

    I am very grateful to Andrew Wilson for his generous and lively review of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. Its gracious style invites a genuine conversation, so what follows is meant to be similarly spirited and hopefully productive all round.

    Andrew engages the book on two levels. First, the standard reviewer’s approach of evaluating conclusions drawn and answers given but secondly, and much more interestingly, he asks whether the book is even asking the right questions, so much so that the matter of how we do theology is up for grabs. This is delightful to read as an editor of the volume, for we intended the first chapter in the book to be precisely an essay in theological method and to raise exactly the kind of questions about questions which Andrew is asking. He even wonders if he is offering a “normal review” (although any review which concludes by summarising four sections of the book is still offering an overall perspective), but I certainly think it’s this kind of review which is potentially fruitful whether we reach agreement or not.

    This means a tussle over individual texts may be less than helpful here. Rather, I am going to suggest Andrew’s review shows that he is not penetrating deeply enough the very issues about text vs framework which he is probing, and that it is his own explicit framework which prevents him doing so.

    It is an interesting irony that Andrew begins by raising the issue of asking the right questions, and then brackets the rest of the review by telling us he had his own question in mind before he came to the book which he expected it to answer: “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?”

    For Andrew, the questions the contributors have in mind make them certain kinds of readers of biblical texts; let me try and show what kind of reader his own question has made him. I have two points which are closely connected.

    1. His question has made him a hasty reviewer.

    Since, at least as I understand it, only about thirty pages of this seven hundred page book were actually addressing the question I expected it to answer—namely, “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?”—I will end up skimming very quickly over much of it.

    I know that here Andrew is not saying he skim-read the book, only that he is going to skim over much of it in his review. But he is saying his review is going to tell us how effective the book is in answering the question he had before he picked it up.

    The effects of this can be teased out a little with—you guessed it—some questions. Is it a fair way to review a book by skimming over about six hundred and seventy of its pages because they do not seem to address the question the reviewer had in mind before he opened it? Would not a reviewer really be on to something if he claims that six hundred and seventy pages of the book do not address the questions the book itself is asking? What other questions might those superfluous pages be asking? On page 45 we ask at least four questions of just one section of the book but, because they are not the reviewer’s questions, his decision is that his readers do not need to worry about them either. This tells the reader rather a lot about the reviewer and less than a lot about the book.

    An unfortunate result of Andrew’s question driving his review is inaccurate representation. Let me give some examples.

    He cites Jonathan Gibson’s second chapter, where Jonathan states that definite atonement properly understood “is not a biblical doctrine per se” (332). Presented like that, it shows well how the book fails to answer Andrew’s question. At least those Calvinists are admitting it is framework all the way!

    But Andrew does not cite what Jonathan goes on to say next within the very same sentence: “rather, definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine” (332). This follows the methodological route we lay out in the Introduction, where we state explicitly that the approach needs to be “biblical, not biblicist” (38), on which more below. Andrew disagrees, of course, with the book’s claim that the doctrine is biblical, but it is unfair to present only part of a key sentence just because it serves the overall theme of the review.

    Andrew discounts Michael Haykin implying any precedents to definite atonement in Clement’s phrase “our Lord Jesus gave his blood for us”, which is easy to do without quoting the preceding sentence where Clement is talking about “the elect of God” (60). The basis for the implication Haykin perceives seems unfounded enough to deserve an exclamation mark, but in fact it’s just not quoted.

    In his summary of the book’s theological section, Andrew fails to include the essay which I think should be of greatest interest to non-Reformed-Reformedish-evangelical thinkers—Garry Williams’ argument for the intrinsic relationship between penal substitution and definite atonement—and Daniel Strange’s chapter is not about the evangelistic invitation, as Andrew suggests.

    More significantly, however, Andrew states:

    Based on From Heaven He Came, I can find only three biblical authors—Matthew, John and Paul—who are believed to teach definite atonement, and the texts in which they are believed to teach it receive only two, two and five pages respectively (275-277, 277-279, 291-295).

    This is too hasty. Why “only” three? If one biblical author taught the doctrine we might suggest that its importance should be kept in proportion; however, it would still be a biblical doctrine to believe. Indeed, Andrew himself defends the doctrine of the Trinity as based on a series of propositions clearly found “in at least Paul and John.” Here two authors are sufficient for a cardinal doctrine; but we had “only three” for definite atonement.

    The main reason why Andrew’s comment is too hasty is because it does not represent the book’s exegesis accurately. I don’t know what to make of his claim that Alec Motyer’s chapter on Isaiah 53 (a close reading of the Hebrew text) can be excluded from his exegetical tally because in its original setting it was so obviously about Israel as a nation. Does anyone say it wasn’t? Motyer’s presentation of what kind of atonement Isaiah presents, and thus the implications for its extent, are entirely bypassed in light of Andrew’s resolute focus on identifying its beneficiaries. Andrew is counting the biblical authors who teach definite atonement, but Sinclair Ferguson explicitly suggests that Jesus taught the doctrine. If we can grant that Isaiah 53 formed part of Jesus’ self-understanding and shaped his conception of his ministry, and if Motyer is right about what that text means, then perhaps our jigsaw has more pieces in it than Andrew allows.

    In his first chapter, Garry Williams provides six pages of Hebrew exegesis to argue that “Levitical atonement was definite atonement” (479). Stephen Wellum explores Christ’s high priestly ministry in Hebrews and elsewhere to make the case for one part of the doctrine. Several pages of the essays by Henri Blocher, John Piper, and parts of Sinclair Ferguson’s interact sensitively with biblical material. Lee Gatiss treats the Synod of Dort’s annotations on a Dutch translation of the Bible by considering four of the key texts in the atonement debate. Raymond Blacketer’s chapter shows the biblical interpretation of Theodore Beza, and Paul Helm’s chapter is actually about Calvin as a reader of the Bible. It is fair to say not only the texts but also the hermeneutics which are believed to teach definite atonement receive far more attention in the book than Andrew credits. What does it say about the book that the use of the Bible features significantly in the historical, theological, and pastoral sections? What does it say about the review that you don’t learn this?

    The fact the material I have just mentioned does not appear in Andrew’s list is not, I suspect, due to the fact he didn’t actually read those parts of the book. It is because he is reading both this book and the Bible in a particular kind of way.

    2. His question has made him a biblicist reader.

    I want to be as clear as I can that Andrew’s pre-reading question is a right one to have in mind, but it raises another: why only one? He had a question he expected the book to answer; the book itself makes clear it was written to answer several that the doctrine demands:

    How should we use the Bible in doctrinal construction? What kind of doctrine is definite atonement? What, in fact, would count as definite atonement being “taught” by a biblical writer, and why is that form of it counting the right kind to expect? How do we know that? And are there other doctrines which impinge on this doctrine? Why and how?

    I suggest Andrew’s right question is not being asked in the right way, for he gives the strong impression that he would only be satisfied with a biblicist answer—chapter and verse which say “Jesus died for his people alone.” I can’t really think of any other reason to explain, for example, the selective way Andrew tallies up pages of exegesis within the Pauline chapters. This is not how doctrinal construction works, and Andrew knows it. Let me try and show this with two examples and one final comment.

    (i) Definite atonement and the Trinity

    Andrew recognises a possible parallel between the doctrine of the Trinity and definite atonement, in that both might be unbiblical names (better, extra-biblical) given to a right synthesis of biblical ideas. We argue for something like this in our Introduction (38). Andrew dismisses the parallel, and he does so with sleight of hand.

    But there is a crucial difference between the Trinity and definite atonement: the Trinity is the unbiblical name we give to a way of synthesising a series of propositions (there is one God; the Father is divine; the Son is divine; the Spirit is divine) which are clearly found in at least Paul and John, whereas definite atonement is the unbiblical name we give to a single proposition (that Christ died to save God’s people alone) that is not clearly found in any biblical writer.

    So a contrast is established here between a series of biblical propositions which can be synthesised, and a single proposition which is not biblical.

    Observe, however: “there is one God” can easily be identified as a biblical proposition (1 Tim. 2:5), but “the Spirit is divine” is an interpretive judgment. Which text in Paul or John states: “the Spirit is divine”? Andrew and I will agree that in several places his interpretation sits so close to the surface of the text as to be almost self-evidently true, and yet of course not all readers of the Bible agree, as per Jehovah Witnesses, Unitarians, and Christadelphians, who would nevertheless agree “there is one God” precisely because the Bible says so.

    Assuming we are right and they are wrong, Andrew would be more accurate to admit that the doctrine of the Trinity synthesises straight biblical propositions with a range of interpretations of a variety of biblical texts. Indeed, the doctrine of the Trinity synthesises not just those texts which seem to speak so obviously for it, but has to cope with those texts which add to its complexity (“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself”, John 5:26; “the Father is greater than I”, John 14:28) and with those which seem to speak against it (Christ is “the firstborn over all creation”, Col. 1:15). As we read all those texts together to form interpretive judgments and yield didactic propositions, we recognise there is no such thing as presupposition-less propositions. Andrew’s propositions could ground modalism as much as trinitarianism, and yet I do not read him that way because I share his presuppositions and read his point in context to be simply methodological. My point: the doctrine can be simply stated even as its complete biblical articulation is intricate.

    So it is with definite atonement. It is rather misleading to use our book’s definition of the doctrine (Christ died to save God’s people alone) as a summary of the way our book reads the Bible to define the doctrine. It is not even the sum total of our definition of definite atonement, other constituent parts of which clearly contain biblical propositions (33).

    The fact is that at numerous points, in several ways, many of the book’s writers contend for something like this: definite atonement is the name given to a way of synthesising a series of biblical claims, some of which are explicit biblical propositions—“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”; “Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins only but also for the sins of the whole world”; “Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all”—and some of which are other kinds of biblical language, such as metaphors or images—Christ as King, Husband, Head, Master, Firstborn, Last Adam. These claims are then further synthesised with a wide range of exegetical and theological material related to them (for instance, the nature of representation, substitution, priesthood, covenant and punishment), so that the best way to represent the overall synthesis is to say “Christ died to save God’s people alone.”

    Andrew is entitled, of course, to disagree with this attempt. But I hope he will concede that it simply is not fair to the book to give the impression the doctrine is based on a single unbiblical proposition. To put it another way, a text like 1 John 2:2 is actually an important part of my understanding of definite atonement, not a text which has to sit separate from it, much the same way that John 5:26; 14:28 and Colossians 1:15 belong within my doctrine of the Trinity, not outside it.

    (ii) Definite atonement and the word “alone”

    The problem of biblicism can be sharpened if we come even closer to Andrew’s own question and consider the word “alone.” It’s an important word for his case that the doctrine is unsupported by any specific text, because no biblical text states that Christ died for his people alone.

    Andrew’s answer to “is this doctrine taught by any biblical writers?” is no, but then he wonders if that even matters. If he thinks the Reformed might be able to say it does not matter and still hold the doctrine, then, on the contrary, let me say it is essential that the answer should be yes. But what are the possible ways in which the Bible might teach that Christ died for his people alone?

    Take the great Reformation solas, and the doctrine of justification through faith alone. Is this doctrine taught by any biblical writers? Does the phrase “faith alone” occur in any biblical writers? Have we just asked the same question twice, or two different ones? The phrase “faith alone” occurs in one place only, James 2:24, where he states, “we are not justified by faith alone”. Where does Andrew’s approach leave us with an issue like this?

    The very controversy with Rome over justification was the use of the word “alone”—for all agree we are justified through faith—and the only biblical text which uses it, at face value, says the exact opposite of the Reformation doctrine. Yet Protestants argue that the word “alone” emerges as a valid theological conclusion when each relevant text is interpreted in its right context and, more than this, the word emerges as utterly essential to the doctrine even in the face of its only occurrence being seemingly to state its opposite, so much so there is a sense in which we are not justified by faith alone (as the words of James 2:24 actually say) and there is a sense in which we are justified by faith alone (as the words of no chapter and verse actually say). I would argue this is because a biblical-theological-systematic approach to the doctrine best accounts for all the data and shows a level of integration with other doctrines far superior to anything biblicism produces. On the other hand, maybe it’s just because we Protestants engage in the sort of exegesis that can swallow any amount of evidence and still come up smiling.

    All of this leads to a final comment. Andrew is able to tell that both Arminians and Calvinists ask the wrong questions of certain scriptural texts. But the reason, historically, both sides have asked the questions they have is precisely because they have grappled with more aspects of Andrew’s very own question than he has. It is very clear that it is the phrase “God’s people alone” in his question which really interests him. But Andrew’s wrestling with that issue is short-circuited by not engaging at all with the exegetical and theological claims made in our book about other parts or words of his question, like “death”, “intended”, “win” or “salvation.”

    These words raise questions about the intent and nature of Christ’s atoning work but they are ignored by one-track minds. Whose intention, shared by whom, and how do we see it stated? What are the implications for Trinitarian theology? What does substitution actually mean? What makes it moral? What kind of priestly offering is Christ’s death? How does Christ save us? What conception of punishment do the biblical writers share?

    These do not squash exegesis in the book but rather cast the exegetical net far wider than Andrew seems to care about—again, see Garry Williams’ suggestive exegesis about punishment as a fitting answer returned to sin (501-506). This does not show biblical writers “teaching definite atonement” in a way which text-tallying biblicism demands. Might it be the Bible teaching definite atonement in a way which biblical reading requires, that is, teaching one strand of its component parts? Andrew ends up thinking not much of the book is actually about his particular question when, in fact, that’s all it’s about from start to finish. It’s just not about it in the way Andrew wanted it to be.

    So I think the conversation can really get going when, to give just two examples, a critical reviewer engages exegetically with Henri Blocher’s arguments that penal substitutionary atonement requires a definite class to be in view lest the morality of the doctrine be impugned, or with Garry Williams’ treatment of biblical metaphors in articulating a theological ethic of divine punishment.

    Methodologically, we present the volume as a map (charting historical, biblical, theological and pastoral territories) and a web (synthesising a wide range of texts, propositions and theological judgments), but Andrew is only interested in selective trails and individual strands.

    Why is that?

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    Confronting the New Atheists By Mistake

    Regular readers will know that I am a David Bentley Hart fan, not just for his beautiful writing but for his philosophical clarity, apologetic fierceness and historical groundedness. He was asked in an interview recently what had prompted him to engage with the New Atheists in his two recent books, Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God, and he replied, rather intriguingly, that he hadn't really meant to:

    Interviewer: Your last two books on Yale Press, Atheist Delusions and The Experience of God, both confront the so-called “New Atheism,” though perhaps in different ways and through somewhat distinct arguments. I’m curious as to whether you see these books as working together to present a larger vision of an appropriate Christian response to atheism. What led to your decision to address the new atheists, and is this a project that you will continue to pursue in future works?

    Hart: Actually, neither book was conceived as a direct confrontation with the New Atheists. In the case of the former volume, the title was originally what now appears as a subtitle; the New Atheists, however, had just had their annus mirabilis in the publishing world as I began writing, and so it was convenient to use their books as a (somewhat comic) point of departure. They spared me the necessity of constructing straw men. Frankly, like many others in the academic world, I was rather naïve about the cultural effect those books would have, at least in the near term. They were all such poor books—shot through with historical ignorance and philosophical ineptitude, rhetorically crass or (in the case of Sam Harris) hilariously pompous—that I imagined no one would take them very seriously. I mean, the book by Christopher Hitchens was so spasmodically delirious and pointless, so full of historical errors and conceptual confusions, that it came across almost as a parody. So the New Atheists were at most a minor and marginal presence in that book, and had a somewhat aggressive title not been added to the volume it might never have been perceived as a contribution to that debate. The new book, on the other hand, is in fact a response to popular misconceptions about traditional understandings of God, and so might be seen as a confrontation with the New Atheists. But, really, their celebrity is already on the decline, except among their most ferocious disciples, and my book is no more concerned with them than it is with religious fundamentalists, metaphysical “naturalists,” certain proponents of intelligent design theory, deists, or those misguided Christian philosophers of religion Brian Davies calls “theistic personalists.” I sincerely doubt I will have anything more to say abut the New Atheists in future work.

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    Keller, Kreeft and the Legacy of Pascal

    "Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is." (Blaise Pascal, Pensées)

    This is probably one of the quotes that has inspired me most in recent years, as I’ve thought about the challenge of communicating Christianity in a winsome and compelling manner. It’s from the French Philosopher and Mathematician Blaise Pascal and is a brilliant introduction to his apologetic strategy. 

    I was pleased to re-read it again yesterday as I came across this little article by Tim Keller, outlining and explaining Pascal’s method. And quickly it reminded me that this time last year I’d recommended Peter Kreeft’s outstanding commentary on Pascal’s Pensées - Christianity for Modern Pagans. A dip back into my highlighter-scribble-laden book reminded me just how much of a genius Pascal was, and got me thinking how much I’d love to share a table with Keller, Kreeft and Pascal in the New Creation. You can form an orderly queue behind me!

    If you’ve never read any Pascal, or are after some reading recommendations for the New Year - can I recommend you check out Keller’s article and pick up Kreeft’s book... You won’t be disappointed!

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    From Heaven He Came And Sought Her

    The massive multi-author tome on definite atonement, From Heaven He Came And Sought Her, deserves a full review. Any volume that starts with Packer, ends with Piper, and has essays by Trueman, Motyer and Schreiner in between, probably would. I had initially hoped to provide one, given my history of sporadic squabbling with this particular doctrine. But From Heaven He Came is not a normal book, at least for me; not only does it have essays of very varying quality, such that I am poring over the text fascinated one minute and sighing at entire sections in exasperation the next, but my reading it has coincided with a related series of methodological questions I am asking, with the result that my dialogue with the book involves two layers of questions, not one. The first layer is the normal one: given this way of doing theology, do these conclusions follow from these texts? Given this question, is this a compelling answer? But the second makes things much more difficult: is this in fact the right way of doing theology? Would the writers of these texts have encouraged it, or recognised it? Are we even asking the right questions here?

    So I don’t feel able to provide the sort of review I originally hoped to write. My presuppositions are too different from those of some of the writers, especially those in the second half of the volume, to make meaningful engagement helpful in a context like this; it would simply feel like we were talking at cross-purposes. What I can do, though, is to summarise the book, explain what I liked, and critique what I see as the two key sections of the book. That may not sound too different to a normal book review; I’m not sure. But since, at least as I understand it, only about thirty pages of this seven hundred page book were actually addressing the question I expected it to answer – namely, “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?” – I will end up skimming very quickly over much of it.

    The strengths of the book are easy to see. It is large and comprehensive, leaving few issues untouched, and combining exegetical, historical, theological and pastoral perspectives. It is written by a group of heavyweight Calvinist scholars. It is irenic rather than polemic in tone and approach, which is immensely commendable. It is well edited and sensibly structured. It also contains a couple of stand-out historical essays. Frankly, as a result of all this, it is likely to be the volume people turn to on this subject for the next few decades or so.

    The first section of the book is the strongest, and focuses on definite atonement in historical perspective. Despite finding some implications in texts that are not there (“our Lord Jesus Christ gave his blood for us”, in 1 Clement, is taken to imply definite atonement!), Michael Haykin’s survey of the church fathers is helpful, and shows that while Prosper of Aquitaine taught definite atonement, and Augustine strongly hinted at it, the rest of the fathers made no clear statements in support of it. David Hogg gives a good overview of medieval theology, in which Gottschalk, Thomas Aquinas and Peter Lombard are shown to hold ideas which are compatible with, although not explicitly arguing for, definite atonement. Paul Helm pushes back against the idea that Calvin himself believed in an unlimited atonement, Raymond Blacketer explains why we cannot blame everything on poor, black-hat-wearing Theodore Beza, and Lee Gatiss gives a super overview of the Synod of Dort, which cleared up a lot of things for at least this reader. The highlight of the whole volume, for me, was Amar Djaballah’s translation and discussion of Moise Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination: a masterful summary of a conceptually difficult work which has never been translated and summarised in English. Carl Trueman then wraps up the historical section with a good piece on John Owen’s disagreement with Richard Baxter over the type of payment implied in atonement language.

    The second section focuses on the biblical material. Paul Williamson finds all sorts of hints in the Pentateuch that atonement might be definite, but provides no clear examples, and (to his credit) concedes that his arguments will likely only convince the already convinced. Alec Motyer takes Isaiah 53 as his text, but spends only two out of twenty pages looking at the intended recipients of salvation (the “many”), and asks rhetorical questions where arguments are needed (“Could any whose iniquities the Lord laid on his Servant fail to be saved? Could that laying-on prove ineffectual? Were any iniquities laid on the Servant save with the divine purpose of eternal salvation?” These, of course, are precisely the questions in dispute). Matthew Harmon looks at the gospels and Johannine literature, and shows that Jesus both died for his people and for the world, but (perhaps understandably, in the context of this volume) reads the latter texts through the lens of the former, rather than vice versa. Jonathan Gibson does a decent job with some unpromising Pauline material: like many of the contributors, he believes that “Christ died for me/us/the church” does indicate definite atonement, while “Christ died for all/the many/the world” doesn’t indicate universal atonement (a pair of convictions which, to my mind at least, do not seem even-handed, but nonetheless present a formidable obstacle to any possible exegetical counterarguments!) His chapter on Paul’s Trinitarian view of salvation begins with an important qualification – “definite atonement, carefully and properly understood, is not a biblical doctrine per se” – and seeks to prove that the definite atonement advocate’s trump card, namely the claim that the Son must have died for those whom the Father elects and the Spirit calls, lest there be division within the Trinity, is found within Paul (I do not think he is successful here, because the systematic-theological tail seems so clearly to be wagging the exegetical dog, but it is certainly a chapter worth wrestling with). Tom Schreiner then responds to the “Problematic Texts” in the pastoral and general epistles, of which more below.

    It was in the third and fourth sections that I found myself realising that, however Calvinist I may be (though I am increasingly preferring Derek Rishmawy’s word “Reformedish”), I simply cannot get next to the way that many five-pointers do theology, irrespective of the conclusions they reach. The third section is the longest in the book, and focuses on “theological arguments”: the intention of the divine decree (Donald Macleod), the indivisibility of the triune God (Robert Letham), the “punishment God cannot inflict twice” argument (Garry Williams), the priestly work of Christ (Stephen Wellum), and a systematic theology of the atonement (Henri Blocher, overlapping substantially with some of the others). The fourth focuses on application: for the evangelistic invitation (Dan Strange), assurance (Sinclair Ferguson) and the glory of God (John Piper). These are the sections to which my earlier comments about cross-purposes mainly apply - I found myself thinking, again and again, that the scriptures simply do not answer the questions that five-pointers, both Arminian and Calvinist, want them to answer - and which I will not therefore treat in any detail. Paul and John, for example, teach that Christ’s death was for the whole world, and yet at the same time it only saves those who believe. Five-pointers, both Calvinist and Arminian, want to go further, and consequently ask questions of texts that they are simply not written to answer, distorting them in the process - like Alan Partridge, when he is told that his interviewee “felt like a pawn in the political chess game”, and immediately asks, “who were the bishops?”

    I said above that only about thirty pages in From Heaven He Came were addressed to the question I thought the book would be about: “Is definite atonement, the belief that Christ’s death was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone, taught by any biblical writers?” For many, this might seem to be the wrong question; after all, as I am often reminded, the Trinity is not explicitly taught (in so many words) by any biblical writers. But there is a crucial difference between the Trinity and definite atonement: the Trinity is the unbiblical name we give to a way of synthesising a series of propositions (there is one God; the Father is divine; the Son is divine; the Spirit is divine) which are clearly found in at least Paul and John, whereas definite atonement is the unbiblical name we give to a single proposition (that Christ died to save God’s people alone) that is not clearly found in any biblical writer. Based on From Heaven He Came, I can find only three biblical authors – Matthew, John and Paul – who are believed to teach definite atonement, and the texts in which they are believed to teach it receive only two, two and five pages respectively (275-277, 277-279, 291-295). The three texts most cited on the unlimited atonement side, namely 1 John 2:2, 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 Timothy 4:10, fare rather better, receiving two, four and twelve pages respectively (284-285, 315-319, 380-386, 387-392), but even when combined together, the exegesis of the key texts comprises just twenty-seven out of nearly seven hundred pages. (I am deliberately excluding Isaiah 53:4-6 here, because in its original setting it was so clearly about Israel as a nation.)

    Not only that, but these sections of exegesis produce extremely flimsy support for definite atonement. Yes, Matthew says Jesus gave up his life for “many” rather than “all”, but within Matthew’s narrative that surely means “an awful lot of people” rather than “only the elect”. Yes, John says Jesus gave up his life “for the sheep”, but he does not say he gave up his life for some and not for others. (A footnote dismisses this objection on the grounds of the “larger matrix of ideas in this passage”, but this larger matrix does not include the exclusivity of redemption either). The section on Paul’s specific language (“us”, “me”, “a people”, “the church”, and so on) is freely admitted not to require definite atonement, and the only arguments presented in support here are (i) the obvious but surely irrelevant point that they do not require unlimited atonement either, (ii) the observation that Paul never makes unlimited atonement explicit by using a “no, not one” formula, and (iii) the strange claim that such specific language would be of no benefit if Paul believed in universal atonement, a claim which entirely overlooks the rhetorical purpose of specific texts (Eph 5:25 is a classic example). As such, it appears to me both that the case for definite atonement is unsupported by any specific text, and that the writers of the relevant chapters largely acknowledge this.

    The responses to the three key universal atonement texts are variable. Schreiner and Gibson do a good job advocating two different readings of 1 Timothy 4:10, and it is to the editors’ credit that they have included diversity on a point like this; the fact that the subject of the verse is “God”, rather than “Jesus”, means that we can hardly see it as a universal atonement text no matter how we read it. Harmon’s exegesis of 1 John 2:2, by contrast, involves the highly implausible judgment that the distinction between “ours” and “the whole world” is not between “Christians” and “everyone else”, but between “a group that sets itself up as intrinsically superior” and “all sorts of people” (based in part on the comparison with John 11:52); this is hardly the meaning the first person plural has in chapter 1 – would the writer include himself within it, if it were? – and although Carson and Calvin are quoted in support, critical scholarship in general does not support this reading. And Schreiner’s explanation of 2 Peter 2:1 is one, surely, that no interpreter would produce unless already committed to five-point Calvinism: he argues that Peter is speaking phenomenologically, so “it appeared as if the Lord had purchased the false teachers with his blood (v1), though they actually did not belong to the Lord.” As Tom Wright said in another context, that sort of exegesis can swallow any amount of evidence and still come up smiling, but as with the Cheshire Cat, it may be that the smile is all there is to it.

    All things considered, one might summarise the four sections of From Heaven He Came as follows. (1) Historically, quite a few people were open to definite atonement in the first fifteen centuries of the church, and the idea that it popped up out of nowhere in Beza is completely unwarranted. (2) Exegetically, definite atonement is not clearly taught by any biblical writer, but flows logically from systematic-theological considerations, particularly around the unity of the Trinity. (3) Theologically, it coheres well with a Calvinist framework. (4) Practically, it has several big implications. From my reading, the answer to my question – is this doctrine taught by any biblical writer? – is no, but then that may not matter. Much of the book is not about that particular question, and unlimited atonement may not be taught in scripture either.

    Even more briefly: before reading From Heaven He Came, I regarded definite atonement as an incoherent answer to a biblical question. I now regard it as a coherent answer to an unbiblical question. Whether that means it should be judged a success or not, I am not sure.

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    Rebuilder of Ancient Walls

    Outside St James’ Church, Piccadilly, stands (or stood, until yesterday) an 8m (26ft) concrete wall. It has displaced the bustling market which normally inhabits the square. It has obscured the view of the beautiful seventeenth century church. Its lower reaches are covered in graffiti. It is one of the most unusual Christmas displays London has ever seen.

    The wall is a replica of a section of the wall surrounding Bethlehem, dividing Israel and Palestine. Though the stated purpose of the original, on its construction in 2002, was to provide security for Israeli citizens, the thing about walls is that simultaneously to providing security, they also create segregation. Anyone behind a wall is safe, but he is also ‘other’, designated ‘different’ by his very location.

    Towards the end of last year, we had a sermon series preaching through Nehemiah. Naturally, it focussed on building walls, using that as a metaphor for, amongst other things, helping to reconstruct the broken-down bits of our world. Then during one sermon, towards the end of the series, my neighbour leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t building walls usually a bad thing? We’re normally looking for ways to break down barriers…”

    “I suppose it depends on whether you’re looking at Jerusalem or Jericho,” I whispered back.

    The thought has stayed with me ever since, buzzing around in the back of my mind, and coming to the fore again on New Year’s Eve, when I visited ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped’, the wall replica/art installation at St James’ Church.

    The wall – both the real one and its London counterpart – inspires strong feelings on either side, as eloquently illustrated in this post by ‘Archbishop Cranmer’. The people behind the installation in Piccadilly are determined to remain neutral as to who is ‘right’ in this conflict, but the general sense I pick up from it is that the wall is considered to be a Bad Thing. Peace and reconciliation are incompatible with 8m high concrete walls, it seems, and a poem displayed in the courtyard heightens this:

    I didn’t know I was on a side until a wall was built
    and then I knew I was on a side, the wrong side…
      ‘Every Wall Has Two Sides’ by Robert vas Dias

    We are supposed to build bridges, not walls, aren’t we?

    Or are we?

    I don’t see that in the Bible. Yes, God tears down walls, and commands his people to do the same, but they are the walls that are barriers against Him and his glory – the Tower of Babel, the city of Sodom, the walls of Jericho… There are at least as many instructions about building up walls – not to mention building the Temple. We ourselves are called living stones, Jesus is the capstone or cornerstone, the end-point of the story is a Holy City. God tears down walls when people start to put their trust in those walls rather than in him and his provision, but walls in and of themselves are not wrong, and the word ‘bridge’ is never even mentioned.

    Perhaps the key is the context in which the walls are built. Look at Isaiah. Twice there we are promised that we “…will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; [we] will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” and we “will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; [we] will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” But what is the context of this joyous building? It only happens when we get our worshipping and fasting right, when we do away with oppression and spend ourselves on behalf of the needy and oppressed, when we’ve bound up the broken-hearted and freed the captives. In other words, strong, secure walls only make sense – only do what they are supposed to – in a world characterised by righteousness and justice. And by contrast, it is only when the world is characterised by oppression and injustice that walls become negative things, things which oppress and exclude rather than things which provide and protect.

    Is it stretching the text too far to apply it to discipleship? In a broken and unjust world, God’s standard for our lives often appears oppressive and unreasonable, a barrier of exclusion rather than an open plain of inclusivity. Calls to tear down the walls in order to make God’s Kingdom accessible to all are extensive, yet this is a symptom of people seeking security in things other than God’s holiness, while asking for his blessing on their choices. When we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, then his laws and precepts become a sheltering wall of provision and protection, available to all who will choose to seek refuge in them.

    So it seems to me that we as Christians are supposed to build walls, but that to be sure of constructing the right ones in the right places, we must first focus on fighting oppression, misery and injustice. Maybe then we will find that we ourselves have become the bricks in the wall, with Christ as our firm foundation.

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    THINK 2014

    This year, we're doing something a bit different with the THINK conference, turning it into a three-day event focused on Romans and the Theology of Paul. Have a look, and if it sounds like your cup of tea, then come and join us.

    Romans and the Theology of Paul (1st to 3rd July, 2014)

    For many busy pastors and teachers, theological training seems a distant possibility. Either we invest a huge amount of time in a theology course, or we content ourselves with the reading and preparation we do in our normal weekly routines (which may not always go much beyond our next sermon!) Short, intensive, in-service training - taking two or three days out, as a one-off, and going into a major book or theme in depth - would be ideal.

    That is the aim of our 2014 conference, “Romans and the Theology of Paul,” with Andrew Wilson. Running across the first three days of July, a group of leaders, pastors and teachers will gather in High Wycombe, and go through Paul’s letter to the Romans in depth. We will look at theological and exegetical issues: “old” and “new” perspectives on Paul, and key debates on righteousness, justification, union with Christ, election and imputation. We will consider pastoral and apologetic questions, too: theodicy, judgment according to works, the “I” of Romans 7, receiving the Spirit, baptism and Israel. And we will think about the whole text as fundamentally a missionary letter, with all the implications that carries for personal and global mission today.

    Accommodation with host families will be provided, and we will all eat together at lunchtimes and in the evenings, which will make this a good time for building friendships as well as growing theologically. We will begin at 3.30pm on the Tuesday, and finish by 1.30pm on the Thursday. The cost for the conference will be £100.

    You can book in here.

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    Books of 2013

    In an email exchange with a friend from California about something else entirely I was asked what my top five books of 2013 were. It is already getting a bit late into 2014 for these kind of lists, but here is my response – only in the spirit of New Year generosity I’ve picked ten rather than five, in categories reflecting my bias and interests. These are not necessarily books published in 2013, just ones I happen to have picked up and read.

    Best biography
    Emma Scrivener, A New Name: Grace and Healing for Anorexia

    This is beautifully written, powerful, touching and profound. It had particular impact for me as one of my daughters has been struggling with an eating disorder. Emma helped me understand the disease more, and the hope of the gospel.

    Best contrarian book
    Susan Yoshikara & Douglas Sylva (Eds.), Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics

    Packed full of amazing facts, figures and projections, this series of essays argues that rather than too many people being a global problem, it is population decline in the key world powers that should be worrying us more. To my mind these were refreshing and compelling arguments.

    Best social commentary
    Pascal Bruckner, Has Marriage for Love Failed?

    I have already reviewed this on THINK. Short, erudite, brilliant.

    Best history book
    Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul

    An extended melancholic love song to an extraordinary and melancholic city.

    Best theology book
    Brian Rosner, Paul and the Law

    Rosner offers a convincing hermeneutic for understanding Paul’s approach to the Law in the excellent New Studies in Biblical Theology series. (If nothing else, reading someone with a different take on Paul from NT Wright is to be recommended!)

    Best commentary
    Peter O’Brien, Pillar Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews

    Preaching my way through Hebrews last year I found this an invaluable companion and guide. Comprehensive, accessible and thorough, this is a commentary as commentaries should be.

    Best novel
    Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

    Probably the most beautifully written book I read last year. A genuine work of art. Berry’s normal concerns of agriculture, community and economy run strongly through the page-turning narrative.

    Best journalistic book
    Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain

    Simply extraordinary, this is the account of Covington’s adventures among the snake handlers of Appalachia, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the sociology of religion.

    Best sports book
    David Walsh, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong

    At times Walsh’s righteous indignation spills over a little too much, but that is understandable and forgivable. Almost a lone voice in questioning Lance Armstrong right from his first Tour de France victory in 1999, Walsh maintained an extraordinary investigation into doping in cycling. Of course, he was right.

    Best natural history book
    George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding

    This is one for romantics and nature lovers and is possibly my favourite book of 2013. Funny, angry and impassioned this is a stunning investigation into our depleted flora and fauna and imagination of what could be. Monbiot provides a list of species that could be considered for reintroduction to Britain ranging from the very obvious (beaver) to the ‘Likely to face certain political difficulties’ (spotted hyena). He also has it in for sheep – ‘sheepwrecked’ being his term of choice for much of the British uplands.

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    Review of the Year: 2013

    All the newspapers have been doing their countdowns, best ofs and top fifty lists of the year, so here's my theological equivalent. It's an entirely personal list, based on the things I've read, heard and seen in 2013, but it might prompt you to consider your own list, and reflect back on the things God has taught you over the last twelve months.

    Best devotional book of the year: For me personally, God on Mute by Pete Grieg. Admittedly, this book neither intends to be a devotional book (it’s about engaging the silence of unanswered prayer), nor was it written this year (it’s about six years old, I think) – but even so, I found it to be the most honest, encouraging and devotionally satisfying book I read in 2013.

    Best blog post of the year: This outstanding post from Alastair Roberts, on Rob Bell, Don Draper and the ad man’s gospel, is dripping with insight. It goes way beyond the typical critique of Bell into a far more challenging, even subversive, critique of the way contemporary people do theology. “Advertisers can be masters of eliciting feelings and states of mind in a manner that makes you think that you are on exactly the same wavelength, without actually telling you anything. They give you the bucket and you fill it, without recognizing what you are doing. Vague and indefinite terms that will be filled with highly emotive states (e.g. ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘wonder’ – words which almost always carry great emotional resonance for any hearer) and prose that seems to be saying something profound without making much of a specific claim is fairly typical here. They hold up a mirror and you see yourself in it.”
    Best leadership book of the year: Again, it’s not pitched as a leadership book as such, but Kevin DeYoung’s Crazy Busy is a short, wise, provocative and challenging book, and if it’s relevant to anybody, it’s relevant to leaders. There are pages in it that have more practical wisdom than some entire volumes, and I’m beginning 2014 with a two-week teaching series from it at Kings. Outstanding.

    Best academic book of the year: Unsurprisingly, Tom Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God (otherwise known as the PFG). I doubt it will be possible for scholars to write major books on Paul for the next generation without engaging with this huge, well-written and important work.
    Tweets of the year: It was during the US government shutdown, and some guy nobody has heard of called Dan Stewart tweeted this: “The Washington Redskins are to change their name, due to negative associations. From now on, they will be known as the Maryland Redskins.” In second place was another shutdown-related tweet: “So, the US government has shut down. Has anyone tried turning it off, and turning it back on again?” And in third, our very own St Stuffed Shirt: “Just attended a conference in California with a bizarre looking lobby area. #strangefoyer.”

    Best academic paper of the year: Michael Gorman on “Christ our Peace”, at the British New Testament Conference. If Paul’s eschatology and vision of the kingdom is Isaianic, and if Isaiah’s eschatological vision is bound up with an era of global peace in which swords are turned back into ploughshares, then doesn’t “peace” – a word which appears in the opening sentence of all Paul’s letters – deserve to play a greater role in our understanding of his gospel?
    Book review of the year: Undoubtedly Michael Deacon’s review of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol in the Daily Telegraph, which is certainly the funniest book review I’ve ever read. “The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.”
    Sermon of the year: Terry Virgo on “Jesus is Back”, at the New Ground event at Ashburnham. A masterclass in how to expound the text (in this case John 14), make the world of the story come alive, and increase people’s desire and expectation to encounter God. If you haven’t listened to it, you should.

    Newspaper headline of the year: The recent story about Nigella Lawson and drugs was sublimely summarised by Metro: “The Great British Baked Toff.” Hard to beat.
    Most soaring corporate worship time of the year: I haven’t been in many corporate worship contexts outside of my own local church this year, and when I have, it’s usually been because I’ve been preaching. But I doubt many who were at the Mobilise conference this year will forget the response time in which we sang “Servant King”. I love it when the gospel hits you all over again, as if you’ve never thought about it properly before.

    Best dangling modifier patrol of the year: Thanks to our own Jennie Pollock for this one, which she found in the Daily Telegraph magazine: “Kelly Brook tweeted this picture of herself stuffing a turkey with friends.” Wonderful.
    Best new song of the year: This (like all of these) is incredibly subjective, but the new song I’ve most enjoyed this year is “Shepherd Boy” by Martin Smith. It’s not a corporate worship song, and in places it’s poetic to the extent that I’m not quite sure what is happening, but it is touchingly humble, melodically beautiful, and performed to stunning effect on Martin’s God’s Great Dance Floor. “I’m no hero of the faith. I’m not as strong as I once thought I was. I’m just a shepherd boy, singing to a choir of burning lights.”
    Most insightful one-liner of the year: Tim Keller on the subject of prayer: “God will always give you exactly what you would have asked for, if you knew everything he knows.” Deep.
    Old Testament revelation of the year: The Old Testament texts that address the problem of evil and suffering, like Genesis 3, Job and Lamentations, always seem to give a variety of perspectives on it, rather than providing one knockdown answer. So in Job, for example, we find that the Satan is responsible; that God is sovereign over evil, and is to be praised anyway; that we are crying out for a mediator who can represent God to man and man to God; that suffering does not always correspond to unrighteousness; that sitting and weeping in silence is better than proposing explanations; that suffering does not have the last word, and the righteous are ultimately vindicated; that challenging God is impossible because he is creator and we are not; and so on. The implications for pastoral and apologetic ministry are substantial.
    New Testament revelation of the year: Two groups of people, one at the start and one at the end of Luke’s gospel, thought they had lost Jesus, and then discovered him after three days, which led to them being challenged to rethink who he was, and what his mission was all about (Mary and Joseph at the temple, and Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus). Didn’t you know I’d be at my Father’s work? Wasn’t it necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter glory? Wow.
    My most wrong blog post of the year: This year, my most wrong article was so wrong that I had to take it down. Those who saw it may remember that I critiqued a journal article in the Priscilla Papers without even reading it; unfortunately, Justin Taylor kindly linked to it, which raised its profile enormously; a flurry of correspondence followed, including some very gracious emails from Scot McKnight and D C Cramer; and I issued a grovelling apology. Lesson learned, I hope.
    Our most discussed blog post of the year: It’s a toss-up between my piece on Cessationism and Strange Fire, and Phil Moore’s enjoyably inflammatory piece on What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin. We also had a great discussion thanks to an anonymous Newfrontiers pastor, who questioned whether languages/tongues should be used in Sunday meetings.
    I know it’s a time of year when people are unlikely to be reading or commenting too much, but if you’ve got this far, it would be interesting to hear your reactions / responses / alternative suggestions. Happy New Year!

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    My Five Favourite New Terms of 2013

    Every year, a bunch of new words, terms or phrases get invented. Most of them don't catch on; a few ("selfie") make the dictionary. Because of my rather narrow field of interest, the terms that I enjoy are unlikely to gain traction in society as a whole, but that doesn't stop me enjoying them. Here are my top five from 2013, along with definitions.

    5. Reductio ad abspheredom. The process of becoming smaller, and simultaneously more amusingly branded, by multiplying into apostolic spheres.

    4. John sequitur. A logical conclusion that wouldn’t follow if it wasn’t stated by John Piper.

    3. Reformedish. Like Calvin in a good way (big God, preeminent Christ, truthful Bible, grace-filled gospel, clear ecclesiology, missionary zeal), but not in a bad way (insert problem with full-blown high Calvinism here). This word was invented, as far as I know, by Derek Rishmawy - who I presume would define it in this vague yet winsome kind of way.

    2. Eucharismatic. Someone who worships God both through sacraments and liturgy, and through using spiritual gifts like prophecy, languages and so on.

    1. Same-sex mirages. The undoubted winner was coined by Doug Wilson, and probably needs no further explanation.

    Honourable mention also goes to Obamandias, on the basis that Shelley would certainly have written about the healthcare website if he was alive today. Any I missed?

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    Dreher, Doug and the Ducks

    If you're British, you may not have heard about the firing of Phil Robertson, the ZZ Top-esque star of the reality TV hit Duck Dynasty, for his somewhat crudely expressed views on homosexuality. If you're American, you certainly have. A huge amount has been written on it in the last seven days, much of it banal, some of it useful. But two contrarian perspectives which contain some surprising insights from the whole affair come from Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative, and Doug Wilson:


    If Phil Robertson weren’t a rough customer from the rural South, there wouldn’t be a TV show. If Phil Robertson looked more like a clean-cut Baptist pastor from suburban Shreveport instead of John the Baptist, wearing camo instead of camel hair, his Christian witness would be unremarkable. (Similarly, if Nadia Bolz-Weber weren’t tattooed, the roadmap of her life in the wilderness, she would come across as safe, as tame, and her witness would be unremarkable.) See, we want our wild people to be wild in ways that we can accept. So many liberals, for example, love to praise exotic foreign and primitive cultures for their authenticity, for the apparent fact that they see more deeply into life and how to live it than we in our technological consumer society do — but edit out parts of their traditions that offend their sensibilities. It’s like the people who want close-knit communities, like in the good old days, but who forget the oppressive conditions, material and social, under which those close communal bonds were forged. The Episcopal seminarian I wrote about in the 1990s, who didn’t understand why the inmates in her Bible study class rejected her liberal interpretation of Scripture for a fundamentalist one, could not grasp that the world these impoverished prisoners came from compelled them to seek out strong, morally uncompromising religion. She wanted to turn them into Episcopalians, but they were a lot closer to giving their lives to Islam.

    And here’s Doug Wilson, on the way red state Christians have responded to A&E, and the way blue state Christians have responded to them:

    The contrast must not be between how unsophisticated Christians fight and how sophisticated Christians . . . what do they do? At most, they demur, with a throat-clearing caveat or two. Theologians and ecclesiastical eggheads can make merry over this kind of pop culture melee if they like. The material is there — “look at those rubes, standing against the principalities and powers with their duck calls, zz top beards, and chicken sammich haute cuisine, hold the mayo.”

    But the lack of self-awareness in this criticism is staggering. These are shepherds who feed only themselves (Ezek. 34:2). When shepherds have neglected the flock for so long, and the wolves are ravaging them, and the sheep come up with some kind of strategy to defend themselves, and the shepherds sit up on the ridge, laughing at the tactical inadequacy of what the sheep are attempting, what shall we call that?

    So what do we need? We don’t need generals. We have that. We need generals who fight. We don’t need leadership councils. We have those. We need national leaders who fight. We don’t need pretty boy preachers. We have those. We need preachers who fight. We don’t need evangelical regiments of pajamaboys. We have that. We need fight, and we need to fight with everything we have — heart, strength, and brains. All in.

    Show me your forearms. Unless there are scars all over them, then I honestly don’t want to hear your views of the inadequacy of these cultural clashes (Gal. 6:17). When the barbarians are throwing their scaling ladders against the city walls, if the only defenders at the top of those walls are Chick Fil A employees in paper hats and hot grease from the deep fryer, and rednecks with their beards and shotguns, and nobody at all there from Red Brick Memorial Reformed, Rev. Forsythe P. Snodgrass, D.Min, minister, then let us be frank. We shouldn’t blame the folks who are there.

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    Christmas Challenges Culture

    I doubt there are many people who would think "the spirit of Christmas" is about challenging the culture, subverting empire, and announcing the reign of a new king. But for all of us who follow Jesus, that's exactly what it is.

    In about 9 BC, an inscription was written in a city called Priene, in what is now southwestern Turkey, to commemorate the birthday of Augustus Caesar. It is now in the Berlin Museum, and it reads: “the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came through him.” For the Roman Empire, the arrival of Caesar was a day to celebrate, because he was the way that peace and justice had come to the entire world.

    Five years later, according to Luke 2:10-11, an angel made an announcement to some startled shepherds, in words that are remarkably similar to the Priene inscription. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” he said, “for today, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord is born to you.” Anyone familiar with the way Roman people talked about Caesar would have known what was going on here. The claim being made was that it was Jesus, not Caesar, who was the true source of good news for the world; it was Jesus, not Caesar, who was the true king, responsible for bringing peace and justice to the earth. Just like Isaiah and the other Jewish prophets had predicted.

    The first Christmas, in other words, was a culture-challenging, world-subverting event. It was a way of undermining an entire empire by announcing the arrival of a new king - a king whose kingdom would be characterised by new beliefs, new ways of living and new loyalties. The twinkly music and the twee children’s choirs can obscure it, but every time “Hark, the herald angels sing” plays through a shopping centre tannoy system, it’s an announcement that a “new-born king” is around, and therefore that contemporary empire - liberalism, democracy, capitalism, secularism, and even the very commerce the shopping centre is promoting - is on the way out. As wonderful as families, presents, decorated houses, movies and turkeys are, they don’t really provide good news of great joy to all nations. Like Caesar, they bring peace and joy to some, but marginalisation to others. Like Caesar, they are temporary stocking-fillers, parodies of the real peace and joy that come through Jesus.

    So Christmas is a time to challenge culture. Whether it’s by giving to those who can’t give back, inviting isolated people for festive dinners, or sharing the true gospel with those whose understanding of “good news of great joy” is a few days off and a hangover, let our words and our actions proclaim the real gospel, and the real empire, of Jesus. When Paul first preached in Thessalonika, the people were worried; it sounded like he was defying Caesar, and “saying that there is another king, Jesus.” He was, and there is. Happy Christmas.

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    Nativity by John Donne:

    Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
    Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
    There He hath made Himself to His intent
    Weak enough, now into the world to come;
    But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
    Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
    Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
    The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
    Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
    Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
    Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
    That would have need to be pitied by thee?
    Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
    With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

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    The Best Op-Ed of the Year

    This, with only eight days left of 2013, is surely the best op-ed of the year. Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

    One useful — and seasonally appropriate — way to look at our divided culture’s competing worldviews is to see what each one takes from the crèche in Bethlehem.

    Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

    But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

    This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

    Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

    As these world pictures jostle and compete, their strengths and weaknesses emerge. The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

    The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

    The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

    In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

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    Christmas & the End of Segregation

    A few days back I posted some musings prompted by the death of Nelson Mandela. As well as that somewhat tangential post, Mandela’s death has caused me to reminisce about my experiences as a teenager in South Africa in 1988-89, and the extraordinary changes that nation has been through.

    Perhaps the single most striking moment in my journey of discovery into the realities of apartheid was on a short train journey I took one day. I was staying in Kenilworth, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and would catch the train into the city centre. I did not have much money and was not fussy about the quality of carriage I would be in, so on this occasion asked for a third class ticket at the ticket booth, rather than the normal first class. (Thinking back, I’m not even sure there was a second class option, which should have been a clue in itself of what I was about to experience.) By this stage, many of the most obvious signs of ‘petty’ apartheid had vanished, especially in liberal Cape Town. There were no signs on the train saying ‘Whites Only’ but the apartheid realities were still there: First class was for whites, third class for everyone else.

    Arriving at Cape Town I walked to the ticket barrier, not even noticing that those who had been in the same carriage as me were not walking with me. At the ticket barrier my ticket was checked, and I was told I had to leave the station by the exit at the other end of the platform. This seemed ridiculous. Why did I have to walk to the other end of the platform? This was the exit! But the ticket inspector was insistent, and around I turned. In fairness to the (white) ticket inspector, this was an interesting example in colour blindness, as he could very easily have ignored my third class ticket on observing my white skin and let me through. But had he done so, I would not have had my apartheid wake up call.

    The exit I had expected to leave the platform by led into a shopping mall that was by any standards western and ‘first-world’. The exit I was directed towards was thoroughly African. It genuinely felt a different world. There were no other white faces in evidence, and hawkers and traders were spread around selling their wares – something that was certainly not the case at the first class exit! This was not the South Africa I had so far experienced, but it was real.

    What I saw that day was the incredible efficiency with which apartheid segregated the races. It did it in such a way that most of the white population were, for most of the time, not even aware it was happening. This was made clear when I spoke to Capetonians who had no idea that this ‘third class’ world existed at the station – I don’t think any of my white friends knew it was there, despite all being liberal (in the South African sense of the word), Christian, and anti-apartheid. Why would they? They were white, which meant they always travelled first class. I think they all just assumed that those (black) passengers in the third class carriages followed them out at the front of the station. It was as if there were two parallel universes, and unwittingly I had fallen through the looking glass.

    In 2005 I was at a conference in Bloemfontein. I hadn’t been to South Africa many times since the end of apartheid and it was with some alarm that I heard a group of Zimbabweans at the conference were going into town for some food. In my mind, Bloemfontein was a bastion of apartheid, an Afrikaner stronghold, and restaurants were still segregated. I went with my Zimbabwean friends but felt genuine apprehension as we piled into a steakhouse together. I needn’t have worried – there was no issue. Black and white were both eating in the restaurant, and both being treated with equal courtesy. There were no separate entrances and exits. There were no reserved areas, subtly preserving segregation, no first class or third class. For me, few things could have spoken more loudly about the radical change South Africa had undergone.

    Nelson Mandela has been lauded as the leader who made such a transformation possible, and in many ways that is a correct assessment. But the reality of apartheid-era South Africa stands as a picture of the segregation that happens in every heart; what C.S. Lewis described to a group of students as the phenomenon of the inner ring – the sense that there is a club to which we want to belong, but cannot be admitted; or to which we are admitted, only to find that there is another club to enter yet:

    It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it, this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment, and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this: Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care.

    Lewis advised how to escape this self-destructive pursuit of the inner ring:

    To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “I nsides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction. It is like the house in Alice Through the Looking Glass.

    On that day in Cape Town I felt as though I had fallen through the looking glass. Nelson Mandela looked through the glass and took the long walk to freedom. But Jesus is the one who tore down the dividing wall of separation and has ushered us into his presence. In Christ we find that we are truly ‘in’ and all segregation is banished. And that is what we celebrate this Christmas time.


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    Idolatry, Injustice, Immorality and Independence

    A few days ago I tweeted that the four great evils that the Jewish prophets denounced - idolatry, injustice, immorality and independence - were still the four great evils that beset the world today. Someone asked me to expand on that, so I've posted my notes below.

    Four main evils characterise Israel and Judah during this period – but they are also, in many ways, the four main evils that have characterised the human race throughout our history.
    - Idolatry - this is the first sin, and involves putting something or someone else in place of God. “For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Ki 14:23 etc). From here, three other besetting sins typically follow.
    - Injustice – the idea of worshipping a god who did not judge injustices, since they were most likely unjust themselves, was very appealing to those who would oppress and trample the rights of others. This is the strongest theme in the prophetic words of Amos, some of Micah and some of Isaiah (especially chs 1-5).
    - Immorality – idolatrous worship is often sexually promiscuous, with prostitution, cultic sex and fertility symbols frequently involved. Worshipping Yahweh involved monogamous fidelity.
    - Independence – both Isaiah and Jeremiah denounce Israel and Judah for relying on other nations (Assyria, Egypt) to rescue them, rather than calling out to God for deliverance.

    Intriguingly, in many ways, these remain the three key ways human beings fall into sin once we abandon God and start looking elsewhere for salvation, satisfaction and fulfilment:
    - Idolising money leads to injustice – economic sin – as per a Marxist or Marxian view of humanity.
    - Idolising sex leads to immorality – sexual sin – as per a Freudian view of humanity.
    - Idolising power and pursuing independence – political sin – as per a Nietzschian view of humanity.

    There is nothing new under the sun ...

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    Why Not Four?

    A couple of weeks ago I met with someone who had a few big questions about the gospel, and in amongst them was this: “why did Jesus rise again on the third day?” I launched into an answer about the necessity of the resurrection (“1 Corinthians 15: If Christ has not been raised…” etc.) but he stopped me and clarified his question: “why did Jesus rise on the third day? Why not the fourth?”

    I thought that was an interesting question…  So here was the answer I gave (with a few more Bible verses than I originally offered off the top of my head!!). I think there are at least two reasons why it was the third day rather than any other day:

    1) A symbolic reason. “The third day” is a symbolically significant day throughout Scripture. It’s the day the Earth gave forth its fruit at creation (Genesis 1:12); the day Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac and yet returned with him alive (Genesis 22:4ff); the day Pharaoh’s cup bearer and Joseph’s brothers were released from prison (Genesis 42:17-18); the day God descended at Sinai with thunder and lightning and a new covenant (Exodus 19:16ff); when the Israelites crossed the Jordan to possess the Promised Land (Joshua 1:11; 3:2); when various famines came to an end (2 Sam 21:1; 1 Kings 18:1); when Jonah was freed from the belly of the fish (Jonah 1:17; 2:10). And so on…

    The third day is a day of change. A day of breakthrough. It’s a day when God intervenes for His people and their circumstances are radically transformed. It’s a day laden with symbolic potential, all of which is beautifully present and fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. He came forth from the ground, the true sacrifice returned alive, set free from imprisonment, establishing a new covenant and opening the way to the Promised land, bringing an end to an era of misery, as he walked free from the belly of the earth.

    Symbolically speaking, the resurrection could hardly have happened on any other day!

    2) A prophetic reason. The third day is not only a symbolic or literary device, however. Scripture describes Jesus’ third day resurrection as being the direct fulfilment of prophecy. ‘He was buried and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:4).

    It’s likely that Paul was speaking about the whole sweep and pattern of Scripture rather than one specific verse, and he may have had in mind some of the verses cited above. We know that Jesus applied Jonah’s three day experience to himself: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40) and Paul may have done likewise.

    But it’s likely that Paul also has in mind specific prophetic passages, such as:

    “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2).

    In one sense Hosea 6 would have been read as a general statement of trust in God: “Let us return to the Lord, because He is the one who heals and restores. He always has done. He always will. And typically He does such things on the third day!” But it’s actually likely that Hosea 6 was originally read as a vain hope rather than a statement of expectation. See God’s response in verses 4 onwards. Whenever God would extend his healing and mercy to Israel they continued in wickedness (7:1ff). Israel was longing for a third day restoration, but they weren’t going to get it, because of their consistent unfaithfulness.

    But the language of healing, revival, being raised up and living in His presence is tantalisingly apt to describe Jesus’ resurrection. As the embodiment of Israel – the faithful embodiment of Israel; who never ‘transgressed the covenant’ (6:7) as the first Adam did – Jesus experienced the third-day restorative power of God.

    I think that Paul was referring to prophecies like this, and that Hosea 6 was also in Jesus’ own mind as he predicted his death and his third-day resurrection (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 24:6-8; John 2:19). It is unlikely that in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul was thinking of Jesus’ prophecies, since they weren’t Scripture at that point in time. But these prophecies of Jesus were so well known in his day that the Chief Priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first” (Matt 27:63-64).

    So, for this prophetic reason Jesus had to be raised on the third rather than the forth day; so that both he and the Scriptures that came before him would be vindicated. So that the true and faithful Israel would experience the promises the first Israel was unable to inherit.

    I’m sure there are other angles on this as well, but that was roughly my answer in the moment. What have I missed? And what would you have said?

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    Unto Us… A Child is Born

    If you're a preacher, or involved in communicating the Christmas message in any way, I'm sure you will identify with my problem... How to tell such a well-known story from a fresh perspective? People have been drip-fed the story since childhood (accompanied by tin-foil stars, cotton-wool sheep costumes and children with tea-towels on their heads!) and aside from the nonsensical oddities that make their way into retellings (three ships; reindeer; holly, ivy and snow in the Middle East!) they've pretty much got every detail down pat by now...

    So some friends of mine - a few of whom attend my church, band some of whom don’t - have put together three excellent short films, exploring the Christmas narrative in a modern setting and showing how it’s a story about regular people encountering God in unexpected and powerful ways.

    Rich describes the films as follows:

    The first of the three videos highlights the story of Mary and Joseph, and explores the question of purpose. Is there a purpose to my life… what was I made for? We see that Mary and Joseph in humility and obedience to God discover their true purpose, to be the parents of the Saviour.

    Then we have the shepherds… normal everyday working folk who were caught up in God’s big story. Perhaps they were asking the question “is God interested in me?” This video shows that God is not some distant being, uninvolved in creation, but instead, motivated by love, He came to live amongst us.

    Finally we have the magi, who could be likened to the scientists and politicians of their day. They may have been asking “is there more to life than this?” Searching for meaning and answers, they followed the evidence, which eventually led them to a baby.

    So here we have three different stories and three different questions, tied together with one resounding answer: Jesus!

    I’d really recommend you check out the videos on YouTube. Each is about 90 seconds long and we used the Shepherds one at our Carol Service last week, which was a beautifully moody way to introduce the Christmas story.

    Watch them, like them, and share them to your hearts’ content. Merry Christmas!

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    How to Get Rid of Awkward Bible Passages: An Eight Step Guide

    If you’re going to be a widely-read Bible teacher, you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve. It won’t be long before the people you’re teaching realise, with or without your help, that there are some biblical passages they don’t like very much. What will you do with them? The question keeps many of us awake at night. If you teach them as they are, then not only will people not like the Bible, but they won’t like you. But if you are to get rid of them somehow, then you will need some clever hermeneutical sleight of hand. It is for that purpose that I present the following eight-step guide to making awkward Bible passages go away.

    1. Introduce the text as a Difficult Passage (capital letters are the new scare quotes). This will immediately set your readers on high alert; after all, who wants Difficult Passages in their Bibles?

    2. Populate your discussion with as many synonyms for “difficult” as you can: debated, disputed, confusing, controversial, awkward, challenging, obscure, demanding, etc.

    3. Mention a really, really stupid interpretation that some oddball in church history has come up with. For those who don’t know about the fallacy of the excluded middle, this will make it seem that the only two options are the really stupid view and your view. Never, ever, mention a nuanced presentation of the view you don’t like by a credible scholar. This is fatal.

    4. Transition quickly to explain what you want the text to mean, preferably using language like “A more probable view is ...” or “More likely, we should ...” Your reader will breathe a sigh of relief that the text doesn’t mean what it says.

    5. Make it clear that the author of the text isn’t oppressive, abusive or incompetent. Some readers will immediately assume that all alternatives to your view are somehow oppressive, abusive or incompetent.

    6. Quote the maxim that “clear passages interpret unclear ones”, which is the standard euphemism for “other texts can drown out this one, if you bring enough of them into play”.

    7. Mention an obscure bit of background information, ideally one for which there is scant evidence, that appears to support your interpretation. Fortunately, when people want to believe what you’re saying, they don’t check things like this with primary (or even secondary) sources.

    8. Conclude your discussion with a confident wave of the hand: “For all the debate that surrounds this passage, the main thing we must remember is ...”

    That ought to sort out any problems you might have. If it doesn’t, just mention head coverings. Good luck!

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    The Attacker at the Door

    There are many great moments in Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, but my favourite is when he takes the most common objection to Christian nonviolence – “ah, but what if there’s an attacker at your door, and he’s going to kill your family?” – and patiently explains why, despite its rhetorical power, it doesn’t mean Christians are entitled to kill people. After an introduction, four chapters on the Old Testament (which are extremely helpful for apologetics, as well as the argument for nonviolence), four on the New Testament (two on Jesus, one on Paul and Peter, and one on Revelation), and one on the history of the early church (which makes a compelling case that the written Christian witness before Constantine was uniformly anti-killing), Preston tackles some of the ordinary questions and scenarios people come up with. Here’s how he handles the rabid murderer who is out to kill your family:

    The attacker-at-the-door question is often viewed as a theoretical situation in which there are two, and only two, choices: kill the killer or let him (it’s always a man, right?) kill your family. Oftentimes the question is posed in such a way as to trap people committed to non-violence into admitting that they’re either inconsistent or heartless. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but in my experience, this question is often asked dismissively, as though the mere presentation of this one dilemma will expose the naivete of the nonviolence position and bypass the need to do any serious biblical thinking. So I’m not going to consider this question from a theoretical standpoint, because life in not theoretical. We live in the real world, where situations normally don’t come down to only two options: to kill or let your family die. In real life, there are several things to consider.

    First, how do you know he’s going to kill your family? It’s impossible to know if the attacker is 100% set on harming your family. In the real world, humans are moral agents who have breakable wills. The attacker is not pre-programmed to perform the worst possible evil at all cost. He’s a human being made in the image of God. Even if he’s screaming out, “I’m going to kill your family, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!” he could be blowing smoke so he can run off with your TV.

    Second, are you 100% sure that God won’t intervene? Unless God has whispered this in your ear, and you’re 100% sure it was God who whispered, you can’t know this. I often hear Christians mockingly say, “What, am I going to just sit there and pray?” But all this does is expose that we don’t believe in the power of prayer. Elijah prayed, and the heavens were shut up for three and a half years; Hezekiah prayed, and God intervened single-handedly to take care of 185,000 Assyrians threatening to skin whole families alive. If the Bible means anything, prayer is more powerful than ten thousand bullets to the head.

    Third, what are the chances that your attempt to kill the attacker will succeed? Realistically. Do you own a gun? Is it loaded? Are you a good shot? Are you a better shot than your attacker? If you are such a good shot, then why not shoot the gun out of his hand? Are you sure that you won’t miss and accidently blow off your own kid’s head? In the real world, that’s a legitimate possibility, especially in the heat of the moment.

    Or what if you thought the attacker was trying to kill your family, but he only wanted bread? So you fire and nick his shoulder—but now he’s ticked. Only now he is going to kill your family, even though he had no original intention of doing so. Your violent response brought more harm on your family ...

    This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do anything. Quite the opposite. There are many different nonviolent ways to stop the attacker. These include verbal resistance (pleading, yelling, negotiating), spiritual resistance (praying, trusting God, witnessing), sacrificial resistance (taking the bullet), or even physical resistance (tackling, hitting, kicking). Perhaps you’re surprised that I’m describing hitting and kicking as nonviolent. But not all enforced pain is violent. It all depends on the intention. The doctor and the mugger both slash your skin with a knife, but only one is a violent act. Though some disagree, I think that one could forcefully resist without using violence. But intentionally killing the attacker would be an act of violence ...

    I say all of this to show that nonviolence isn’t as crazy as it’s sometimes made out to be. But - and this is very important - success isn’t the highest goal. Faithfulness is. So what would be the most faithful, Christlike response to the attacker at the door?

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    Mr Bingley and Romans 9-11

    The last in the series of excerpts from Tom Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God, with the best punchline of the lot:

    We have seen that 9.30—10.13 stands in between the two elements of this basic narrative. That is the new thing, the messianic story which has intruded, functioning now as the fulcrum around which everything else moves. There is a rough sense, in fact, in which chapter 9 is about the past, chapter 10 about the present and chapter 11 about the future. But 10.5–13, and indeed the immediately larger section to which it belongs, 9.30—10.13, is not itself part of the great narrative. It stands upright in the middle of that story, the telos of all that has gone before – and perhaps, though Paul does not put it like this, the arch of all that will now follow. It is the messianic moment, the ‘but now’, the sudden sabbath which creates a new sort of time, a heaven-and-earth time, a time when the ‘word’, the rhēma Christou, can leap down from heaven and do its work of replacing the thorn with the myrtle, its work of renewing and circumcising hearts so that they can believe and confess the gospel. The Messiah is both in time and out of time, transforming time itself and inevitably therefore eschatology too. Romans 9—11 thus exhibits in its very literary form the combination of (what ought to be meant by) ‘salvation history’ on the one hand and (what ought to be meant by) ‘apocalyptic’ on the other. God has done, in the middle of Israel’s history but disrupting and rearranging that history, the thing he had always promised. And only in the light of that ‘vertical’ disruption does the ‘horizontal’ narrative, from Abraham to the ‘remnant’ in chapter 9 and from the ‘remnant’ to the fulfilment of the patriarchal promises in chapter 11, make the sense it does.

    But this messianic moment, even though it has a different character in relation to time before and time after, nevertheless does belong at the centre of precisely this narrative. To this extent, we might even see Romans 9—11 not simply as a chiasm but as a cruciform structure, with this great vertical providing the definite line, the straight-downward line, that refocuses the edge-lured arguments and holds them together as they spread out into past (9.6–29) and future (11.1–32). All else east or west of Jesus: the arrow that says ‘You are here’.

    (All this is hugely annoying, no doubt, both for the modern universalist and the postmodern particularist; but, as Mr Bingley said to his sister Caroline when she suggested that it might be more rational to have conversation rather than dancing at a ball, it would indeed be much more rational, but it would not be near so much like a ball.)

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    A Rather Rambling, Self-Indulgent Book Recommendation

    I don’t know if your local shopping centre is anything like mine? The collection of shops is fine, if a little predictable. But the aisles between the shops – that’s where the oddity lies. People sit in chairs in public and have their eyebrows threaded, or beauty treatments applied. They used to stick their feet in bowls of water and allow fish to suck off the dead flesh but thankfully that’s recently been outlawed! There are booths where people try to sell you Sky TV packages, as if I might either (a) pick up a 12-month contract on a whim; an impulse buy, like a pack of gum at a cash desk, or (b) have recently been thinking “I’d like to get Sky TV, I wonder how I go about doing that… oh I know, rather than Googling, I’ll visit the forlorn-looking man in his little stall.” Odd!

    But perhaps the strangest of these temporary sales fixtures is the paintballing stand. Do you have those too? People in overalls, clutching guns standing at a table that’s bedecked in camouflage gear (which makes it far more visible in the sterile white alleyways of commercialism.) They have amazing offers to sell you – a whole day of paintballing for the discount price of… whatever. It has long confused me why they think the corridor of a shopping centre is the optimum place to sell paintballing packages. I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re targeting men who, after an hour spent following their wives around from shop to shop, are seriously considering a shooting spree!

    Over time, I’ve developed a strategy for avoiding each and every one of these product mongers; the perfect combination of words and body language to deter them. I’m usually polite and to the point. But the paintballing guys are a bit more fun. I enjoy messing with them; asking ridiculous questions and making bizarre requests, like “If I buy one of these vouchers, can I cash it in now? One gun, six hundred pellets in this very shopping centre?” They quickly get unnerved. I think I do the wild-eyed look quite convincingly.

    A year or so ago I was walking through the shopping centre and got accosted by the paint people and was in a bit of a rush, so fobbed them off with a succinct “no thanks.” I don’t know whether I got the body language wrong, or the tone of voice, or whatever. But they kept hassling me. So in a moment of sheer frustrated flippancy I replied: “No thanks, I’m a pacifist.”

    Now this is both true and not true. True that my personal, theologically-informed position is one of pacifism. Not true that this precludes me from paintballing. In fact, I rather enjoy paintballing. But I thought it would be enough to end the conversation. And surely enough, it was. But as I walked away I could hear one of the staff members turn to the other and say, “What’s a pacifist?”

    What’s a pacifist? Really?

    As if that wasn’t surprising enough, I then heard his colleague reply: “I think it means he’s allergic to paint.”


    This is not the first time the statement “I’m a pacifist” has caused people to look at me strangely. There is a great deal of confusion over what pacifism is and isn’t. Many consider it to be a weird, lefty, un-thought-through, cowardly thing, and all those who embrace it to be moccasin-wearing, herbal-tea-drinking, quasi-Amish, vegan, naïve, idealists with weak stomachs and no grounding in reality.

    Some, apparently, think it’s a paint allergy.

    I object to each and every one of these accusations, and will happily go round on round at paintball with anyone who holds them! (At a discounted rate, in a shopping centre of your choice.) 

    But all that is to say that if you hold any of those misapprehensions, or even if you don’t, you should really read Fight by Preston Sprinkle. His name may sound like an ice-cream topping, but his book is rather brilliant.   

    That’s all.

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    Musings on Mandela and Driscoll

    I first came across Mark Driscoll when an American friend gave me a copy of ‘The Radical Reformission’ soon after it was published (September 2004). I read it and lapped it up, recording in my notes, “I dislike the title, but everything else about the book is fantastic.”

    Here was someone articulating so much of what I felt but wasn’t always so good at expressing in terms of how the church should be doing mission in postmodern culture. I had never heard of Driscoll before, and he wasn’t a name any of my British friends were dropping, but within a few months of reading that book ‘Pastor Mark’ was suddenly everywhere, becoming one of the most influential voices in the church circles in which I moved. In 2009 I had the privilege of visiting Mars Hill with a group of British and South African pastors, and while conscious of some differences of emphasis between us, was truly blessed by experiencing that church. I felt Driscoll and his key leaders were men of integrity, generosity and – this may surprise some – humility. Since then, my sense of ‘some differences’ has grown, much of which would be summarised in Andrew’s review of Driscoll’s most recent book, but my appreciation for many aspects of his ministry remains.

    When I was 18 I left home for the first time, got on an plane, and by a convoluted route involving Moscow, Aden and Mozambique, landed in Swaziland, where I planned to spend a few months working on a farm for a friend of a friend of my father’s. While there I attended a church service being presided over by Desmond Tutu, and was fortunate to speak to him briefly. He asked where I was from, which at the time was Brighton, and then made some pithy comment about the Conservative Party which was holding its annual conference in Brighton that week. This was in 1988, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Nelson Mandela was in jail, and I was an ignorant young man.

    My time in Swaziland was complicated, and I left rather more quickly than anticipated, eventually arriving, via another convoluted journey, in Cape Town. I learnt some important life lessons through these experiences, and did some growing up. I also learnt a lot about the reality of apartheid as my life developed a somewhat schizophrenic pattern, divided along racial lines. As an 18 year old white boy in Cape Town I enjoyed the privileges of white South African life, climbing Table Mountain, hanging out on the beach and generally ‘jolling’ with a fun group of University of Cape Town students. I also spent a lot of time going into the townships surrounding Cape Town, especially Khayelitsha, speaking to, and worshipping with, black Christians. I saw a side of South Africa which many white South Africans barely knew existed, thanks to the segregating efficiencies of apartheid. During that time I learnt that while white South Africans prayed for peace, black South Africans prayed for justice, and that one wasn’t really possible without the other.

    In 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. By this time I was a student in Newcastle, and desperately wished I could have been in Cape Town that day. The path to ‘the Rainbow Nation’ was dangerous and difficult, but in Nelson Mandela it seemed that South Africa – and the world – had found a leader who embodied both peace and justice. This was most powerfully epitomized on that election day in 1994 when millions of South Africans, of all skin colours, queued to vote, and, for a few glorious hours, all crime and violence in the nation ceased.

    You may not have been following the story (though I guess readers of this blog will have) about Mark Driscoll and plagiarism. A lot of people have waded in, perhaps unwisely. For my money, the sanest response thus far has been that of Douglas Wilson. Wilson writes far more eloquently and comprehensively than me, so I really have nothing to add to his post on the substance of the arguments. However, in observing some of the things that have been said about Driscoll, I have noticed some correspondence with the response to the death of Nelson Mandela. That correspondence is our human tendency to idolatry. Driscoll, in certain church quarters, and Mandela, near universally, have been credited with powers that far exceed the credible. Commenting on the Driscoll affair, Andy Crouch notes that, “the celebrity is actually a complex creation of a whole community of people who sustain the illusion of an impossibly productive, knowledgeable, omnicompetent superhuman. The real danger here is not plagiarism—it is idolatry.

    The one globally respected leader of our age, Mandela was undoubtedly a great man, but not the flawless saint he is being presented as. While wanting to give honour to him to whom honour is due, I must admit to feeling a certain unease at the extent of the adulation being poured out on Mandela in recent days. It makes me begin to question just how genuine all that adulation is, and how much of it is a little stage managed – the response of a celebrity obsessed public trained in emotionalism. In this light, it was refreshing to see footage from Johannesburg of young South Africans celebrating, in contrast to British school children expressing their deep sorrow over Mandela’s death.

    Mark Driscoll is also a leader of significant ability. Of course, to compare his leadership ability and impact with that of Mandela would be invidious, but to be surprised that Driscoll should be flawed is as naïve as the assumption of Mandela’s perfection. The criticism has been made that Driscoll is protected by the impenetrable shield of evangelical celebrity. There may be some truth in that, but it occurs to me that he is at least as much a victim of a culture that while idolising celebrities, also loves to smash them down. As Wilson observes, “In my (quite extensive) experience with this kind of thing, those who make allegations usually operate with significantly more freedom than is enjoyed by evangelical “celebrities.” Prominent figures in the religious world are regularly toppled, usually due to their own sin and folly, but not always, and they are hardly permanent fixtures in our heavenly firmament. False accusers, on the other hand, are very rarely toppled.”

    In their way, both Mandela and Driscoll have influenced me profoundly, but the true measure of their faults and their greatness will only be revealed in time, and not in the instant glare of the media; nor by the pavlovian response of a celebrity shaped culture. To make an idol of either of them is folly - something with which I’m sure they would both agree. Driscoll is an unusually gifted preacher and leader, but he is not flawless, and we should not expect him to be. In apartheid South Africa whites prayed for peace, and blacks for justice: the greatness of Mandela was that he accomplished both. The universal praise heaped on him demonstrates the human desire for a king, but no man - not even Mandela - can be the perfect king. No man, but one.

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    Strange Fire: The Embers

    It's now been a few weeks since the Strange Fire conference set certain pockets of the Christianternet alight, and I think we're now in a position to reflect on some of the outcomes. Obviously I don't think John MacArthur and his fellow hard cessationists are right - I've explained in some detail why I think he is both wrong and discourteous in his dismissals of charismatic theology, even as he is probably right about a fair bit of charismatic practice - but he has, in my view, achieved a fair bit of what he set out to do, and will probably quite pleased with some of the results. Here's how I see the embers of Strange Fire.

    1. Cessationists have been emboldened to speak out. Like all of what I’m saying in this post, this is based only on my limited reading - but it seems to me that an awful lot of cessationist-leaning Reformed types have been given fresh confidence to challenge charismatic or continuationist theology by the antics at Strange Fire. I’m not talking about the die-hards; I mean irenic, moderate influencers in Reformed circles, particularly amongst bloggers and writers (Kevin DeYoung, Tom Schreiner, Tim Challies, Denny Burk, Justin Taylor, and so on), many of whom I didn’t even realise were cessationist until a few weeks ago. When I heard some of the things John MacArthur was saying, I assumed that guys like this would immediately distance themselves from the inflammatory rhetoric and leap to the defence of their charismatic brothers - but instead, while admitting that things might have been stated too strongly, they began linking to and posting things which reinforced the essence of MacArthur’s challenge. As such, Strange Fire has brought a number of cessationists out of the closet, and emboldened those who were out already, and that must be regarded as an achievement.

    2. Following a delay of a few weeks, several strong charismatic/continuationist responses have been forthcoming. John Piper has done a series of four podcasts on charismatic gifts, prophecy and charismatic abuses, which take some of MacArthur’s criticisms on board but frame the biblical issues very differently (and with great grace). Craig Keener has responded at length, and pretty definitively, to the book. A variety of radio debates and discussions have produced similar results. And of course there have been a huge number of lower-key responses from relatively unknown charismatics like me. It took a while, but I am encouraged to see some of the heavyweights joining the conversation.

    3. The extreme statements have probably moved the centre of gravity in the conversation towards cessationism. I’m speaking here about the Reformed conversation, since that is what MacArthur was aiming at - I doubt the conference will have made any difference in many charismatic and Pentecostal circles - but as so often happens, extreme statements have moved the centre. (The way this works in all sorts of debates is fascinating, but for another time). All sorts of people who were formerly quite quiet (see #1) have started saying things like, “Well, I don’t agree with MacArthur’s tone, but on this thing he’s saying, he does have a point.” I think, if one was to take a quantifiable snapshot of American, neo-Reformed evangelicalism today and compare it with an equivalent from three months ago, we’d find the landscape was more cessationist now. (Some of this may be aided and abetted by the huge success of Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, which has really got up the noses of conservatives). That, for MacArthur, is probably mission accomplished.

    4. One reason why cessationists and charismatics talk past each other so much on this issue is that they disagree on what the key question actually is. For the charismatic, the key question is, “is there biblical evidence to suggest that the last days, in which God’s people prophesy and work signs and wonders, will end before the parousia?” For the cessationist - who, as Adrian Warnock has pointed out, is often happy to admit that the answer to the charismatic’s question is no - the key question is often different: “are the alleged prophecies, languages and healings of the contemporary charismatic movement of the same quality, frequency or immediacy as those in the apostolic age?” For the charismatic - who, I would suggest, might also admit that the answer to this question is often no - this is a subsidiary question; after all, it might be that the reason for this is that we should be pursuing the gifts more, not less. But in the aftermath of Strange Fire, I would have to say (based, of course, on my own reading and experience) that it has increased in prominence. Many cessationists do not believe they have to meet a burden of biblical proof to establish the cessation of the miraculous gifts, and of those that do, a gesture in the direction of Ephesians 2:20 is often deemed enough. (Speaking as a researcher in Pauline theology for a moment, I am amazed at the lack of interaction with scholarship on 1 Corinthians displayed by MacArthur and some of his colleagues, but that will have to be a topic for another day). They do, however, think that charismatics have a huge uphill struggle to show that modern “miracles” are of the same frequency and quality as the New Testament ones. And that, as I reflect on the online debates I have seen in the last few weeks, has become a bigger issue. As long as the discussion is about that, charismatics are up against it.

    5. Most controversially - but, I believe, defensibly - cautious continuationism (as opposed to charismaticism) has been exposed as something of a fudge. Now, I have to tread carefully here. I’m using the term “cautious continuationism” to refer to the belief that the miraculous gifts continue, but that they should not especially be sought or pursued by sensible neo-Reformed types, whether individually or corporately; and I’m using the word “charismatic” to refer to the belief that they continue and should be actively pursued by all Christians, including (perhaps especially?) sensible neo-Reformed types. I can’t help noticing that the people who talk about themselves as cautious continuationists are frequently trying to distance themselves from the “charismatic” label, and frequently do not have their practice aligned with their theory (it might not be entirely unfair to characterise the popular use of “continuationist” to mean “I believe the gifts continue, but I don’t use them or anything”). And this, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:1, is a fudge. If the miraculous gifts are available, they should be zealously pursued (zēloute ta pneumatika): corporately, individually, both. Prophecy should be especially desired. Whoever speaks in a language builds himself up. Whoever interprets a language enables the congregation to be edified. Healing, miracles, and so on build up the body. So anyone who believes the miraculous gifts continue should, to be biblically consistent (let alone loving towards others in their church), pursue them. As Terry Virgo has remarked, a good husband pursues time with his wife; he doesn’t say he’s “open” to it. Anyway: the polemics of Strange Fire have made it clear that a lot of those who argue for the miraculous gifts don’t really use them, or even particularly desire them - though there are some wonderful exceptions, like Piper - and that in practice, an awful lot of continuationists have practice which looks much more cessationist than charismatic. If this results, in Tim Keller’s nice phrase, in the “death of the mushy middle”, it will probably be seen as a win for cessationists.

    So despite my strong disagreements with John MacArthur, and my astonishment at a number of things he apparently believes - that the languages at Corinth were all known earthly languages, that the prophecies of Philip’s daughters or the Corinthian prophets were put in Scripture somewhere, that the last days Joel talked about are over, that nobody used miraculous gifts after the end of the first century, and so on - it looks to me as if Strange Fire has accomplished a fair bit of what it set out to achieve. But I may be reading this all wrong. Any thoughts?

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    Generosity, Part 2

    Last week I posted on generosity. This is a follow up.

    Generosity is honest
    Because we tend to be self-deceiving, it is wise to take regular reality checks about our finances. Our self-deceiving, self-perception means that we tend to compare ourselves favourably with others in terms of our morality, but unfavourably in terms of our finances. Wherever we fit on the socio-economic scale we always tend to be most aware of the person who has a bit more than we do, and this kind of comparison makes us less likely to be generous. The deadly sin of envy is always wanting to have us.

    There has been much talk in recent years of us living in an age of austerity, and, indeed, for many people this has been a tough time economically. But a reality check tells me that historically low interest rates mean my mortgage has been much cheaper than it otherwise would have been, that I have clothes on my back and food on my table – and the same is true for pretty much everyone I know.

    BBC radio recently ran a series titled, A History of Britain in Numbers, which quoted some interesting statistics revealing our comparative wealth. For example, in terms of home comforts:
    • Relative to income, the same amount of artificial lighting in the year 1300, cost about twenty thousand times more than it would today.
    • In 1911 half of households had less than one room per person. Now most households have more than two rooms per person.
    • In 1947 7.4 million households – half of all homes! – had no hot water.
    • In 1970 one in six households didn’t have sole use of a WC.

    Or, in terms of health:
    • In 1840, about 50 in 100 deaths were of children. Now it is about one in 100.
    • In 1968, nearly four in ten of those aged over 16 had NO natural teeth.
    • The number of fatal accidents at work has declined in the past century by about 97% despite a near-doubling of the population.

    Or, in terms of education:
    • A woman’s chance of going to university in the 1920s was about one third of a man’s. Today it is 30% higher than a man’s. A woman today has about 100 times the chance of obtaining a degree as her great grandmother.

    Or, simply in the amount of ‘stuff’ we possess:
    • Incomes just before World War One were, in real terms only a fifth of todays, which sounds a lot more like ‘austerity Britain’ than what we are experiencing at present.
    • At the Redbridge recycling depot near Oxford ten years ago, they collected about 100 televisions a month. Now they collect about 1000.

    When it comes to our sense of how rich or poor we are we need to be very alert to our rate of measurement! Generosity measures not from what we lack, but from what we possess and are able to do with it, which means that even those who are genuinely materially poor are able to be generous. Generosity acts out of faith, not fear. Our financial attitude must be shaped more by generosity than by the state of the economy. We need to be honest, and generosity helps us in that.

    Generosity is evangelistic
    Generous people tend to be popular! I’m sure I am not alone in preferring to spend time with generous people than with skinflints – they are just more fun. Sadly, the church and Christians have often have a bad rap when it comes to generosity. In the UK at least, this must in large measure be due to the fact that there are so many old church buildings with signs appealing for funds. Appeals for the church roof and organ fund convey an image of an institution desperately looking for charitable support in order to stay afloat, rather than a dynamic community who know the limitless supply of a bountiful Father.

    Of course, the reality is that through the centuries the Church has often been at the forefront of social provision, and many of the advances in education and health and social provision have been initiated by Christians. When we are engaged in such activities it is important to remember that we are not just trying to make ourselves popular! Rather, generosity on our part witnesses to the generosity with which God has treated us. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 1, He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…in him we have obtained an inheritance. Our lives have been transformed by the generosity of God, so we are to be a generous people in response.

    When we are generous it has the potential to change lives. I know my life had been transformed by the generosity of others: financial, relational and spiritual. A generous church brings positive change to the community it serves, and this is an evangelistic act.

    The spiritual gift of generosity
    As Romans 12:8 makes clear, some people have a spiritual gift of generosity. This is a fantastic gift to have! As with all the spiritual gifts, the only way to discover whether this is a gift we have is to try exercising it. If our generosity is fruitful this is the evidence of our gift. Moreover, as those who have been promised a great inheritance in Christ, it makes sense for all Christians to aspire to the gift of generosity. The more generous the more of us are, the more of us will discover the spiritual gift of generosity!

    Generosity is joyful
    1 Chr 29:9 paints a wonderful picture of what happens when God’s people are generous. As the people freely and whole heartedly offered their gifts for the construction of the temple there was an accompanying release of joy among them. Generosity and joy do go hand in hand. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” can sound a tired cliché, in response to which Spike Milligan’s quip, “All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy” often seems more credible. The evidence is clear, however – generosity really does breed joy.

    May I wish you a generous Christmas!

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    Megachurches and Consumerism

    It comes as no great surprise to find that David Bentley Hart does not find megachurches to his taste. I can't imagine many Eastern Orthodox philosophers do. But his critique of them - and I say this as a pastor of a multisite, charismatic, evangelical church that meets in a warehouse and gathers 850 each week - is still well worth reading, as a challenge to individualism if nothing else. This is from his seminal essay Religion in America:

    Nothing is more suggestive of the immense institutional transformations that may lie ahead for American Christianity than the growth of the so-called “megachurches” enormous urban “parishes” built more or less on the model of suburban shopping malls, accommodating sometimes more than 20,000 congregants, and often featuring such amenities as bookstores, weight rooms, food courts, playing fields, coffee houses, even hostelries and credit unions. Worship in such churches often takes the form of mass entertainments—popular music, video spectaculars, sermons of a distinctly theatrical nature—and constitutes only one among a host of available services. Obviously, the scale of such enterprises is possible only because the spiritual life to which they give refuge is essentially private: each worshipper alone amid a crowd of other worshippers, finding Christ in the emotional release that only so generously shared a solitude permits. When Christ is one’s personal savior, sacramental mediation is unnecessary and pastoral authority nugatory; convenience, however, and social support remain vital.

    I do not mean to ridicule these churches, incidentally: I am not competent to say whether they represent merely a final disintegration of American Christianity into an absurd variety of consumerism, or whether they might be taken as - within the constraints of contemporary culture - a kind of new medievalism, an attempt to gather small cities into the precincts of the church and to retreat into them from a world increasingly inimical to spiritual longing. For me they do, however, occasion three reflections: first, that no other developed nation could produce such churches, because no other developed nation suffers from so unrelenting a hunger for God; second, that the social medium, the “middle” that I have claimed American religion has always largely lacked is perhaps more profoundly absent now than it has ever been, so much so that many Christians find themselves forced to create alternative societies to shelter their faith; and, third, that evangelical individualism may in fact be becoming even more thoroughly the standard form of American Christianity.

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    This term I have been preaching a series on our church’s values and last Sunday was on the theme of generosity. In the run up to Christmas this is a good theme to think about.

    Christmas is the time of year when probably more than any other we can feel financial stress. The madness of Black Friday, with near riots in some shops, is evidence in itself that the priorities of western society are out of whack. Christmas advertising is constant, every charity mugger is out to get us, and the price of Christmas trees seems to be rising at a rate far in advance of inflation! Those who know me would vouch for the fact that I truly am ‘Mr Festive’; but even my extreme Christmas-enthusiasm can grow a little weary with the financial pressures of the season. (Accompanying sounds of Jennie spluttering with disbelief in the background.)

    I am convinced that the way to handle our finances well – in all seasons – is within the framework of generosity. Generosity is liberating. Here’s how:

    Generosity is a mark of maturity
    The state of our finances affects everything. Having one’s finances in order is an important part of having life in order, because disordered finances tends to cause disorder in every area of our lives. However, having ordered finances requires real discipline – it is not something that just happens by itself. As disciples this discipline should be something we embrace, and the church is one of the best places in which to learn financial discipline. With initiatives such as the CAP money course, and many local churches offering practical help with things such as budgeting, there is plenty of help available. The message is simple: If you need help with ordering your finances, ask!

    Financial maturity means acting with both prudence and liberty. Prudence is about handling our finances in a way which means we actually have some money available to do things with. As Proverbs 13:11 expresses it, Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gains little by little will increase it. The prudent person learns to add ‘little to little’ in order to accumulate something.

    Financial liberty means we trust in God’s ability (and willingness) to meet our needs. As Jesus famously instructed, Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Mt 6:25)

    Financial maturity doesn’t use prudence as an excuse for meanness though. Sometimes people claim to be acting with prudence when in reality they are just tight. At the same time, maturity doesn’t use liberty as an excuse for irresponsibility, spending and buying what is not needed and cannot be afforded.

    Generosity is the guide that helps us hold the tension between prudence and liberty. To be generous requires prudence, because without prudence it is unlikely we will have anything available with which to be generous! But generosity also thrives in an atmosphere of liberality, which trusts our Father for his supply. The financially mature know how to add little to little, and they know how to give big!

    Generosity fights fear
    Generosity is a spiritual issue because very often being generous requires a conscious decision to fight our fears. Followers of Jesus are called to live in freedom, not fear, and overcoming our fears is an act of spiritual warfare.

    A large measure of the power of ‘mammon’ is its ability to make us fearful. Money speaks to us, ‘You can’t live without me. You’ll be lost without me. Once I’m gone you’ll never get me back.’ In contrast, generosity trusts in God’s limitless supply and believes that money given away is never lost, merely sown. Every time we are generous with our money we are winning the fight that it really is, ‘in God we trust’ rather than in money.

    Financial fearfulness, or lack of trust, tends to dress itself up in all kinds of ‘prudent’ attitudes. We can fail to admit our fear for what it is, and try to deceive ourselves that we are acting with financial prudence, when really we should be going to war against our fears by growing in generosity.

    When we are generous it is a statement of our trust in God, and this makes generosity an act of worship. I sometimes talk to church members who are not generous in their giving to the church and who dress this up with prudent concerns about how the church spends the money. It is important that churches have robust financial systems in place – we need to be whiter than white on this one, and to act responsibly with the finances we have – but there is a sense in which what happens to money given in offerings is of no consequence to the giver. As a friend of mine once famously said, it doesn’t matter if the elders choose to burn it! This is because what really counts is our act of worship in giving our money away, and trusting that God will still be able to supply all we need.

    Generosity just does it!
    Because we tend to be self-deceiving about our finances we say things like, “I’ll start to be generous when….” But “When” never comes! I talk to young people in my church who say they’ll start giving generously when they have a deposit saved up for a house. But they then get the house and find that owning a house involves all kinds of expenses beyond simply paying a mortgage, so they then say they’ll start giving generously once they are more established in their careers. But by the time they are more established in their careers they have started having babies, and life has got more expensive again. So they say they will start giving generously once the kids are older, only to discover that teenage children are exponentially more expensive than little ones. When the kids have left home then, comes next – but then there are college fees to pay and the seemingly never ending demands upon the bank of mum and dad. It is very easy to go through life saying “When” and find that when really never does come.

    The solution, of course, is just to start! If I had started playing the guitar when I first thought about it thirty years ago, and had then kept at it reasonably regularly, I would probably be a fairly competent guitarist by now. But I never started, and I still cannot play a note! Don’t let this be true of you when it comes to generosity. Generosity doesn’t procrastinate. It just does it.

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    Switchfoot on the Sacred and the Secular

    I could count on the fingers of one digit-depleted hand the number of Christian bands I enjoy listening to on a regular basis. The reason for that will have to wait for another day and another post… perhaps. But it seems I need to decrease that number even further.

    I really like Switchfoot. They are a fun, high quality, tight band, whose songs are brilliantly crafted and whose lyrics make me think and/or smile. They rock just hard enough to keep me interested. They also happen to be Christians, as many of their lyrics make plain. But of course, like all Christians who play in a well-known band, they inevitably have to answer that question: “So, are you a Christian band?”

    I’ve seen many artists fudge that answer, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any answer with such clarity as this excerpt from an interview with lead singer Jon Foreman. See what you make of his answer:

    “To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds.

    The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls’ volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty.

    Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music.

    None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.

    I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that.

    We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lots of people say Jesus Christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience. We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge ‘brothers’ who have a different calling.”

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    Morality As The Sharks Close In

    From Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

    Today’s western world is familiar enough with extreme Epicureanism. If the world is a random cosmic accident, why should anything be thought ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ in the first place? Would not all such categories collapse into the projection of our emotions (‘theft is wrong’ would simply mean ‘I don’t like theft’)? And is not that reduction to emotivism, in fact, what has happened in the post-Epicurean world of modern western morality? Get rid of ‘god’, and you no longer have a ‘problem of evil’. All you have is unwelcome ‘attitudes’ or ‘prejudices’. Not that people can easily live like that. They quickly invent new ‘moralities’ around the one or two fixed points that appear to transcend that subjective, emotive analysis: the badness of Adolf Hitler, the goodness of ecological activism, the importance of ‘embracing the Other’, and so on. Better than nothing, perhaps; but people who try to sail the moral seas with that equipment look suspiciously like a handful of survivors clinging to a broken spar as the ship goes down and the sharks close in.

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    Does God’s Presence Go Missing?

    I'll start this post with two disclaimers. One, I realise that Twitter is a notoriously bad medium for communicating with nuance, since it both forces brevity (through software) and encourages provocative remarks (through the peer pressure of gaining followers, retweets, and so on). Two, I also realise that I have a substantial hobby horse about the unbiblical use of "presence" language in charismatic circles - so substantial that I often hear it neighing and snorting behind me when I'm commuting, or talking to people, or doing the shopping. With those two caveats in place, I want to take issue with a comment I saw on Twitter recently: not primarily with the tweet itself, although I want to take issue with that too, but with the line of thinking it represents, which seems to be pretty widespread. It went like this: "Church leaders, are you as quick to notice when God's presence is missing from your meetings as you are when key families are missing?"

    The person who wrote that is a serious thinker, and knows a lot of biblical theology, so I assume it doesn’t mean what it initially sounds like it means. I assume it is intended to refer to churches like some of those in Revelation 2-3: gatherings of people who have so lost their zeal for God that he has long since withdrawn his presence from them. But it sounds like it means something else, whether through being truncated, abruptly expressed, or whatever. It sounds like it means, hey, church leaders, watch out: God often appears in your meetings, but sometimes he doesn’t, like a key couple who are usually there but sometimes not, and you need to be aware that that can happen. The sensitive readers may even catch a hint of and when it does, it’s because you’re not leading them properly. But even if not, the impression it gives (particularly through the analogy of a key couple who are missing) is that sometimes God comes to your meetings, and sometimes he doesn’t. Yikes.

    As I say, it’s not really the tweet, but the entire school of thought it appears to represent, which troubles me. People sometimes sing “Waiting here for you ... we’re desperate for your presence” without regard for the fact that the presence of God has already come to them in an irrevocable way, both individually and corporately, and Jesus has promised never to leave them nor forsake them. They talk about “seeking the presence”, and quote Moses’ famous prayer, “if your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t send us up from here” - again, without reference to the vital points that even then, God had already promised to go with Israel, and that, since Pentecost, it is simply impossible for a church who believes and preaches the gospel to somehow “lose” the presence of God. (If Paul could reassure the bungling Corinthians, with all their immorality and idolatry, that they were the place where God dwelt by his Spirit, then unless you’re denying the gospel, you can bet your boots it’s true of you). And I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people ask whether we would notice “if the Holy Spirit stopped coming to our meetings,” usually in the context of warning against insufficiently charismatic corporate gatherings. Quite why this bizarre scenario is being envisaged, or being used to motivate anybody to do anything, is not clear to me.

    Paul, of course, reasons in precisely the opposite way. When challenging wayward, disobedient or divisive Christians, his approach is not to say, “hey guys, if you carry on like that, God will remove his presence”, but rather, “don’t you know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” As such, if we want to motivate people to pursue dynamic experiences of God in our meetings - which I’m sure we do! - we are better off reminding them that God is present, rather than warning them that he might not be. As Terry Virgo put it in a recent tweet: “if the church is a temple of the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t we expect to meet him there?” Spot on.

    It may be that the tweet I’m responding to, and many of the similar-ish comments I’ve come across, have a somewhat different explanation: people may be talking about “the presence of God” when what they mean is “our awareness, or experience, of the presence of God”. That would account for quite a few quirks in the discussion, particularly the strangeness of huge crowds of temples of God’s presence singing about how they’re waiting for God’s presence. But surely, surely, we need to be more careful with our language here? When pastors, teachers and songwriters start talking about the Spirit as if he might or might not be there in meetings, doesn’t that lead to a lower expectation for encounter, rather than a greater one? And even if it didn’t, wouldn’t the fact that it is unbiblical preclude us from talking that way?

    Perhaps everyone who says things like that, and sings things like that, knows that it’s code for something else. But my guess is that an awful lot of people don’t. So I think it’s incumbent on those of us who teach, and lead, to be a bit more careful with our words. There was a time when God’s people had to go somewhere, or wait a while, to experience his presence. Not since Pentecost, though.

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    Plato, Betjeman and the Surprise of Christmas

    The evenings are darker. Mince pies are beyond-ubiquitous. Starbucks have ditched their white cups in favour of red. I’ve not yet seen the Coca Cola advert, but it’s rumoured to be out there, if my Twitter feed is anything to go by. Christmas is nearly here.

    Whatever you make of Christmas – whether you love or loathe the carols, decorations and festivities – it’s undeniable that this 2,000-year-old event has had an extraordinary effect on the world. It’s celebrated on every continent, has inspired so much art, and even our calendar is divided around it. But its central message remains surprising and challenging.

    The Greek philosopher Plato wrote in The Symposium about the separation between mankind and the gods. He believed that the gods were distant and barely accessible, and interaction could only possibly be achieved through rituals like prayer, worship and sacrifice. He concludes that, ‘The divine will not mingle directly with the human.’ This view was common in the ancient world. Most cultures believed there was a gulf between the human and the divine and had rituals and practices that helped people connect with the gods. Many cultures still do today.

    But the message of Christmas is that a unique event has occurred, in which the divine and the human have mingled. As the New Testament writer John puts it, God ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).

    Every year millions of people around the world sing carols, listen to readings, and reflect on this ancient story. And when they do these things they continue to find significance in them, for they remind us that the divine and the human can be reconciled, that God is accessible and that his mission was not confined to a single moment in history. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection started something that has rippled out across the world. Today, he sends us to continue his mission, bringing hope to the needy, restoration to the broken, and helping people find relationship with God.

    If this story has even the remotest ring of truth, it’s worth exploring. As John Betjeman put it:

    And is it true,
    This most tremendous tale of all,
    Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
    A Baby in an ox’s stall?
    The Maker of the stars and sea
    Become a Child on earth for me?

    No love that in a family dwells,
    No carolling in frosty air,
    Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
    Can with this single Truth compare -
    That God was man in Palestine
    And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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    Desiring the Kingdom

    James K. A. Smith is one of the most important thinkers in contemporary evangelicalism - how often do you come across a Calvinist Pentecostal philosopher who has written books on both Derrida and Christian formation, and who gets quoted by Tom Wright and David Bentley Hart? - and his book Desiring the Kingdom may be his most important book. There's an immensely helpful summary of it here from Justin Holcomb, and although I know it means clicking a button and going to another website, I really urge you to read it if you come from a church that (a) sees education as entirely cognitive, or (b) doesn't really like or even think about liturgy. Here's an excerpt:

    Two assumptions shape the book and guide the discussion. First, in part one, Smith contests one common understanding of human beings (anthropology) which sees them primarily as “knowing” individuals. Instead Smith asks, “What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? That is actually the wager of this book: It is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as formative rather than just an informative project.” (pp.17-18). Second, in part two, Smith challenges the idea that education or any other practice can be religiously “neutral,” and argues for an expansive understanding of “liturgy” as love shaping habits: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether “sacred” or “secular” - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (p.25) ...

    In chapter three, Smith models what he refers to as a “cultural exegesis” of our secular rituals and practices. This cultural exegesis involves asking “What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy?” (p.89). Therefore, cultural exegesis, much like biblical apocalyptic literature, is a mode of “unmasking” or “unveiling the realities around us for what they really are” (p.92). Smith’s hope is that “the shift of focus from ideas to practices, from beliefs to liturgy, will function as a methodological jolt that gets us into a position to see cultural practices and institutions in ways we’ve never seen them before” (pp.92-93).  By way of example, he offers three liturgical analyses of cultural institutions by examining the mall, the stadium, and the modern university demonstrating that “implicit in their liturgies are visions of the kingdom—visions of human flourishing—that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom” (p.121). However, even these secular liturgies point to the fact that we are liturgical animals. “Secular liturgies don’t create our desire; they point it, aim it, direct it to certain ends” (p.122). Here Smith appeals to Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, which he suggests—differing from the popular interpretation—speaks of our proclivity towards worship (as opposed to theistic belief/knowledge).

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    Wright on the Story of Torah

    From Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

    Once we grasp how the plots and sub-plots of the story work, then, we can be quite clear that for Paul Torah is the divine gift which defines and shapes God’s people. God’s people follow their strange vocation through the long exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which years of preparation, through the period (particularly) of failure, curse and exile, and finally to the unexpected (and indeed ‘apocalyptic’) events which Paul sees both as the fulfilment of all the earlier promises and the new creation which has arrived as a fresh divine gift. Torah accompanies them all the way, like a faithful servant doing what is required in each new eventuality, taking on the different roles demanded by and at the different stages of Israel’s journey, and finally attaining a new kind of ‘fulfilment’ in the heart-circumcision promised by Deuteronomy and supplied by the spirit. At one moment in the narrative the moon is waning; at another it is full; at another, it helps to bury the dead. This narrative framework frees Torah from the burden of always playing the villain in a Lutheran would-be reading of Paul, or the hero in a Reformed one. It offers, instead, a chance for Torah to be what Paul insists it always was: God’s law, holy and just and good, but given a task which, like the task of the Messiah himself, would involve terrible paradox before attaining astonishing resolution. The Torah shines with borrowed light, and the horned dilemmas it has presented to exegetes are only resolved when the complete cycle of waxing and waning has played itself out.

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    The Life Cycle of a Ritual

    A couple of weeks ago I preached on Nehemiah 8, where the people read the Scriptures, came across the instructions to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles – probably from Leviticus 23 – and dwelt in tents for seven days as a reminder of the Exodus. It was a joyful celebration, which I must confess I find quite inconceivable… how can anyone enjoy the prospect of a week of camping?!

    But one verse, which I didn’t get time to elaborate on in the talk, stuck out to me.

    ‘All the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing.’ (Nehemiah 8:17)

    The first reason this verse struck me was that it’s not, strictly speaking, true. It is not the case that the Feast of Tabernacles had not been practiced at all from Jeshua until that day. See Judges 21:19; 1 Samuel 1:3; 1 Kings 8:2, 65; Zechariah 14:16; Ezra 3:4 etc… So what is going on here?

    Commentators suggest that the ritual, whilst still having been practiced across the centuries, had lost its significance. As people erected the booths over the years, they increasingly saw them as representing the kind of tents harvesters used in the fields. And so the feast morphed into a Harvest Festival, rather than a re-enactment of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings. But now, in the hands of people who had themselves just returned from exile, the ritual took on a deeper meaning. It spoke to their situation in a way that it hadn’t done for centuries.

    I think this is a fascinating picture of the life cycle of rituals, which helps me understand something of what’s going on with many young Christians today. 

    There has been much talk recently about the fact that the Millennial Generation is particularly drawn to forms of worship that demonstrate historical rootedness through the use of ritual. Leaving aside the very real possibility that this is nothing more than a fad, and the fact that ‘Millennials love rituals’ is as sweeping a generalisation as ‘women love pink’, I think there is truth in this observation. Liturgy, iconography, contemplative worship, symbolism and ancient creeds seem to resonate with the Millennial Generation, in a way that baffles many older guys; particularly the non-conformist ones who fought so hard to distance themselves from anything that had the whiff of ‘dead religion.’

    But what Nehemiah 8 teaches us is that there is a life cycle to rituals. A particular habit or practice may start out being deeply relevant and powerful, but over time, whether through over-familiarity or lack of thoughtfulness, it can take on a different form and lose its usefulness entirely. This can create a knee-jerk reaction from some who want to do away with the ritual entirely. But in the hands of a new generation who sees themselves and the world differently, an ancient ritual can take on a new and profound significance.

    Sometimes reviving the rituals of the past is helpful. It can remind us to look at the world through the eyes of our forefathers and see beautiful things that have helped thousands – if not millions – of people before us relate to God. If our natural bent is to scorn ancient practices, we would do well to keep an open mind and consider that just because a ritual may have become dead to us, doesn’t mean it either started that way, or will seem that way to others. What may appear to us as a stale practice may contain layers of meaning that others perceive and we fail to recognise. Nehemiah and his people suddenly realised a truth that had become obscured over the centuries: “we are exiled people dependent on our God for deliverance.” 

    The flipside is also true. We would do well to question the rituals we practice to make sure they still have the function and power that we think they do. Non-conformists may be just as ritualistic as their denominational counterparts; it’s just they’ve made a ritual out of rejecting ritual! Every group of worshippers has its own collection of rituals and it helps from time to time to ask whether an act that we practice still carries the intended weight. If not it might be that we need to reinvent it, or at least re-teach about it, to help people understand its significance.

    All of which should not be misunderstood as a plea to reinstate camping. There was a definite life cycle to that ritual (Moses: Feast of Tabernacles > Israel Pre-Exile: Harvest Ritual > Israel Post-Exile: Revived ‘Exile-re-enactment’ > Modern Christians: Camping at Bible Weeks) and on behalf of the Millennial Generation, I’d like to suggest we put that one to rest once and for all! ;-)

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    A Question on Limited (or Definite) Atonement

    Here's a preliminary question on limited / definite atonement - before, that is, reviewing the argument of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, which looks like being the standard exposition of the Reformed view for the next century or so. The question comes from the impression I get, from my admittedly cheap seats, that the Reformed view is being expressed more and more in terms that the Remonstrants would have agreed with, and that the most compelling articulations of limited atonement / definite redemption are also the ones that sound the most Arminian. So here are two quotations, followed by a question. The first quotation is the relevant Article of Remonstrance (to which the Canons of Dort responded), and the second is from John Piper (pretty much today's leading advocate of five point Calvinism).

    Article II — That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

    Piper: “The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans and effective for those who trust him. It is not limited in its worth or sufficiency to save all who believe. But the full, saving effectiveness of the atonement that Jesus accomplished is limited to those for whom that saving effect was prepared. The availability of the total sufficiency of the atonement is for all people. Whosoever will—whoever believes—will be covered by the blood of Christ.”

    My question, then, is simply: how are these different?

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    A Mission of Grace

    In the (nearly) six years that I have led the church I am now at there have probably been two themes I have emphasised over all others. I’m pretty sure that an analysis of my sermons over that period would corroborate this, and prove that the two drums I beat most often are those of mission and grace.

    Fundamental to my understanding of Christianity is that we are called into an adventure of faith and this means being on mission together. The Great Commission applies to us right here, right now. A significant part of my emphasis upon mission has been to try and help my congregation grasp that we don’t just send a select few to be missionaries overseas, but that all of us are called to be missionaries. I constantly reiterate that we don’t have an evangelism program; rather, the church is the evangelism program. I work hard at helping church members think hard about how they can connect with those outside the faith, contextualize what they believe, and contend for the truth of the gospel. If I had to pick one word to sum up the purpose of the church I would choose ‘Mission’.

    At the same time I have beat the drum of grace equally loud and often. I love to draw attention again and again to the unmerited favour that is ours in Christ. Again and again I explain that we need not – cannot! – add anything to the salvation Christ has already accomplished for us. I speak about the freedom, joy and security that is the believer’s birthright because of the free gift of grace. If there was one word I would use to sum up the culture a church should display it would be ‘Grace’.

    On the first night of our summer holiday this year I experienced a crisis moment. (Talking with others subsequently it appears I am not the only person who has suffered such a moment on the first night of a holiday – the sudden change of gear from the normal pressures of life can precipitate something of a psychological collapse.) As I reviewed my life, and ministry, I was flooded with existential angst. What have I achieved? What has been the point?

    The real nub of my crisis was that despite all the emphasis I place upon mission the evangelistic fruit in my own life is pitiably small. It is not only that I preach mission, I also seek to practice what I preach. We have many friends from outside church. We regularly have non-believers in our home. We seek to contend and contextualize and connect. So, my self-loathing-self-questioning went, Is the gospel not actually true? If it is why haven’t I seen more fruit? If it is, is the problem simply that I am useless? I may as well give up! I had a bust up with my wife (which is a mercifully rare occurrence in our marriage) was angry with the kids, angry with the world, angry with myself, angry with God. I felt depressed, dissatisfied and ready to jump off the mountain on which our holiday home was situated.

    We were staying in the French Pyrenees and the next morning I sat down on the roof terrace, looking up at the mountain which the previous night I had considered jumping from, and opened my Bible to where I was in my regular readings – Isaiah 52 – and read, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”. As I read that familiar verse I was overwhelmed again by the grace of God. Grace means that if I never see visible fruit I am not condemned. Grace means that if God, for whatever reason, never enables me to do the things I would liked to have done, he is still sovereign – and good. Grace means that if I do not achieve the things I would have liked to have acieved that does not invalidate me or my call. Grace means that when I proclaim the gospel something beautiful is happening. It’s all grace!

    Grace! Grace changes everything!

    All of which is my somewhat convoluted answer to the question posed by Andrew about whether pastors should be missionaries. Yes, we should, because every believer is called to be a missionary. Mission is our heartbeat. But grace is the corresponding beat, and grace means we don’t beat ourselves up when we are not getting everything done we think we should get done. Grace makes it plain that we cannot get everything done, but Jesus achieves absolutely everything he intends to.

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    The Body of Christ is Like a Bad Marriage

    Here's a very provocative analogy from Christena Cleveland, being interviewed by Thabiti Anyabwile. The church is like a bad marriage, she says:

    In my social psychology class, the students and I examine lots of research on satisfied and dissatisfied couples. Some of the most interesting findings show that dissatisfied couples assume the worst of each other, tend to discount positive behavior and tend to attribute negative behavior to global, stable causes like personality.

    For example, if a wife in a distressed marriage wakes up early on Saturday to surprise her husband with breakfast in bed, he’s likely to interpret her positive behavior by saying, “She must want something from me.” Or, “She probably couldn’t sleep. She only made breakfast for me because she was bored and it gave her something to do.”

    However, if the wife in a distressed marriage commits a negative behavior, say she forgets to tell him that she’s coming home late from work and will have to miss dinner, he’s likely to interpret her negative behavior by saying, “It’s because she’s a selfish person.” He’s unlikely to think that she’s an unselfish person who simply happened to forget to call this time.

    So the husband disregards the wife’s positive behavior and assumes that her negative behavior is fueled by stable personality deficiencies. As you can see, the husband and wife never sit down to have a meaningful conversation. Instead, the husband’s perceptions of the wife are wholly based on his assumptions. In a distressed marriage like this, no matter what the wife does, she loses!

    I’m sad to say that I see this dysfunctional pattern of relating in the body of Christ. People from different tribes often act like the disgruntled husband in the distressed marriage. We tend to zero in on the “negative” behaviors that other Christian groups are engaging in and we tend to attribute those behaviors to personality deficiencies (e.g., “They don’t value Scripture” or “They’ve become too worldly”). Meanwhile, we barely notice the positive things that other groups in the body of Christ are doing. If we notice them at all, we often assume that their motives are impure, that they have an “agenda” or that they’re not worth listening to because they’re outside our tribe.

    You can read the whole thing here.

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    Wright, Idolatry and Humanity

    From Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

    Paul has not ‘revised’ or ‘rethought’ the standard Jewish belief about pagan idolatry, a belief rooted in the sneers of the prophets and the scorn of the Psalms. He has reaffirmed it. We are monotheists, he insists, not pagan polytheists! Those who scramble over themselves to declare that the Areopagus Address in Acts 17 could not have been given by Paul because it is so positive about pagan philosophy, quoting from pagan poets and so on, regularly fail to notice that the heart of the speech is a classic Jewish denunciation of idols, their shrines and their sacrifices. The speech is set, of course, on the rock of the Areopagus, in full view of the magnificent Parthenon and the smaller but still stunning Temple of Nike, two of the most beautiful constructions ever erected by human hands. And the Paul of Acts declares that they are a waste of space, a category mistake. The Paul of the letters shakes hands with his shadowy Lukan Doppelgänger across the void of critical fashion: that is exactly what they are. So much for the first, and most important, pagan symbol. There is one God, the creator of all things, and it is a mistake of the first order to suppose that this God can be contained within, or identified with, anything in this present world. So far, this is precisely what we would expect from a strict first-century Jew; from a strict monotheistic Jew who believed that the one God had made, and owns, the whole world and all its ways and wisdom; from such a Jew who has been transformed from within so that he believes the Jewish story has reached its long-ordained climax. God is not, and cannot properly be manifested in, any kind of object within the world of space, time and matter.

    With one exception. Written into the charter deeds of creational monotheism – i.e. the opening chapters of Genesis – Paul knew that there was one creature who was designed, not to contain the creator God (as if such a thing were possible) but, at least, to reflect him. Part of Paul’s radical and robust rejection of pagan idolatry was based on the clear belief that idolatry not only diminishes God; it diminishes, also, those who actually do bear God’s image. It steals their privilege and bestows it elsewhere; or rather, since it is these same humans who are doing it, pagan worship sells its own birthright for a mess of idolatrous pottage. It puts humans below the birds, animals and reptiles. Humans were supposed to be running God’s world as his vicegerents, his image-bearers, reflecting into the world the glory and wise ordering of its maker. Paul’s typically Jewish reaction against the dehumanization that results directly from idolatry was only heightened by his belief that there had come at last a truly human being, ‘the image of the invisible God’, whose aim was precisely to rehumanize other humans, to rescue them from the corruption brought on by idolatry and to re-establish them as what they were supposed to be. Paul’s rejection of the central symbols of paganism was heightened by what he believed about Jesus.

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    An Epic of (un)Biblical Proportions?

    2014 will be the year of the biblical epic. And rather fittingly, the films are coming two by two!

    You’ve probably seen the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which was released last week and has already evoked a plethora of opinions. Some seem to consider it a triumph; “the Bible is being put on a big screen! The evangelistic opportunities are unparalleled! And if we’re lucky, Jesus might schedule the second coming for the premier! White Horse on a Red Carpet!” whilst others are lamenting the fact that the writer has filled the story out with details not include in the Biblical accounts, as if a watchable film could have been squeezed from three or four chapters of Genesis, without the slightest use of any imagination or artistic license! 

    Trevin Wax’s post on how Christians should respond to the film is typically helpful, and I loved the way he expressed how Christians tend to overplay both the panic and promise:

    “The critics overplay the danger of a biblically inaccurate film, tending to see all artistic license as sacrilegious. The celebrators overplay the promise of a Hollywood blockbuster, expecting spiritual fruit to come, not from the Word, but from pixels on the big screen.”

    Whatever the final outcome, chances are it will be big, and loud, and aggressive, and gruesome. As, indeed, was the flood. Anything less would sell short the grotesqueness of the story.

    My opinion means little until I’ve seen the film, but for what it’s worth, bits of the trailer made me think. I was intrigued by the way Noah ‘heard God’s voice.’ I hadn’t really considered how they would depict that on screen (assuming Morgan Freeman wasn’t going to make an appearance!) and it’s got me pondering about what OT prophetic experience might have looked like. Also, I liked the way they imagined people trying to take the ark as the flood arrived. There’s every possibility that did happen – it seems natural. And thirdly, although it was no-doubt Hollywood rhetoric rather than considered eschatology, I liked the strapline, “the end of the world is just the beginning.” N.T. Wright would be proud.

    From the trailer, I have no idea if it will be a good film. I’ve no idea if it will make me feel that more good has been done than harm for public attitudes towards the Bible. I’ve no idea whether it will provoke fruitful conversations, or just reinforce people’s scepticism. But I personally wish Aronofsky had been able to present the film as he wished, without having to adapt it due to pressure from religious reviewers and focus groups. We’re not well-known for our incisive and unbiased opinions on what makes a good film! I was never under any illusions that it was going to be a biblically accurate movie, so I’d rather see the version that stays true to the Director’s original vision, than one that’s trying to please everyone! But that’s by-the-by…

    The second biblical film coming out in 2014 is Exodus, the new Ridley Scott adaptation of the story of Moses, with Christian Bale in the leading role. When asked about the project, Bale said this: 

    “It’s an intriguing piece, because it’s very few people that I’ve met that have actually read the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, all the way through… Most people read snippets. If you read it all the way through, it’s harsh. It’s really ‘Old Testament.’ And violence in the extreme. [Moses] was not a man of any half measures whatsoever.”

    This quote is interesting. Tell me; how and when did ‘Old Testament’ become shorthand for ‘violent’? I mean; I’m not expecting Christian Bale to make nuanced theological pronouncements, but seriously? The story of Moses is ‘really Old Testament’?! How and when did a limited number of violent texts become indicative of the whole Old Testament? And why these verses, rather than the countless torrents that express God’s love, mercy, graciousness, forgiveness, provision, faithfulness, and so on?

    And taking these two films together, why are directors, actors and (presumably) filmgoers drawn to biblical stories in a secular age? Particularly ones that include so much violence and bloodshed? Why is it that people will deplore the Bible for its bloodshed and violence yet happily plunder the very same passages for a film-premise? Why is it that we’re happy to be entertained by the Old Testament but not instructed by it? It makes good TV, but bad laws. It’s great for Hollywood, but keep it out of our schools, our conversations, and our civil debates. 

    Of course, I understand why people might be happy to watch something on a screen whilst distancing themselves from it in reality. I am entertained by a whole host of things I know to be untrue. But there is something faintly hypocritical about it, is there not? Even if the hypocrisy is barely different from a gun-shunning pacifist enjoying Die Hard from the comfort of his (my?!) sofa. I find it a telling and thought-provoking thing, that people are happy to leave morals at the door of the cinema and be entertained by something that we would find abhorrent in any other context. 

    It appears that something is only barbaric once it ceases to be fiction and starts to suggest something we don’t like to believe about our world…

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    Do Church Leaders Really Have to be Missionaries? Some Questions From an Anonymous Pastor

    A few days ago, a friend of mine who pastors a Newfrontiers church got in touch with me, and expressed some superbly insightful questions in the context of a personal struggle he’d been having. As we’ve done here before, I thought it might be good to air his questions, give it some thought, and crowd-source some possible answers. If you have the time to comment, I’m sure he (and I) would appreciate it. He writes:

    I know the deal. Every pastor needs to be a missionary, and if we’re not, our churches will gradually become reclusive, introspective bomb shelters that make no impact on our communities and dishonour Jesus. Our churches need to be on mission; there’s no way we can lead our people into mission if we’re not on mission ourselves; and that makes personal evangelism a vital, even central, component of our ministry and family lives. I’ve done that, and said that, for years. By all means, pastor the church. By all means, lead your family. But if you’re not sharing the gospel with ordinary people on a regular basis, the church will disconnect from mission. And – although people don’t often say this, it’s clearly implied – the church will slowly die, and you’ll have failed.

    So I’m exhausted. I have a wife to serve, children to train, a church of several hundred to pastor, an eldership team to lead, sermons to prepare, meetings to run, young leaders to develop, pastoral crises to resolve, and a Saviour to worship, not to mention any community involvement, translocal responsibilities or other “extras” I might have. To be honest, I think I’m doing most of those things fairly well. But there’s this guilt that often crashes over me when I think about evangelism (or being missional, or whatever we call it). It just feels overwhelming to do all of those things, and to have unbelieving friends round the house on a regular basis, and to invest significant amounts of time developing friendships with people who don’t know Jesus (even if I don’t have much in common with them), and to actively cultivate hobbies or lifestyle patterns that make such friendships easier, and so on. It feels to me like Jesus – if that’s where the pressure is coming from – is demanding an awful lot of me. And that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.

    So I wanted to ask a few questions, and see if you have any wisdom that might help me.

    1. Is it wrong – as in, sinful – for a pastor not to be proactive in evangelism? Obviously I need to be ready with a reason when people ask me about the gospel (1 Pet 3:15), and to be wise, gracious in speech and able to answer each person (Col 4:5-6), and to preach the gospel within the context of my church (2 Tim 4:1-5), but am I sinning if I don’t actively seek out relationships with unbelievers, with a view to sharing the gospel with them? Is there a biblical passage that speaks to that?

    2. If faced with the choice between spending available evenings (and it is usually evenings) developing friendships with unbelievers, and spending them helping people in the church through dark times in their lives, is there a biblical reason to say the former should take precedence over the latter? Put differently, is there anything to say that pastors shouldn’t mainly spend their time – well – pastoring people?

    3. How far should we take the apostle Paul as a model for pastoral ministry? He was an astonishing individual – a pastor, teacher, apostle, evangelist – whose place in God’s plan for the world was unique. So do I need to take the things he said about gospel preaching (like “woe to me if I don’t preach the gospel”, and “I’m indebted [in the gospel] to Jews and Greeks”) and apply them to myself? Or are they more expressions of his unique apostolic role?

    4. Does the Great Commission, which most would take as the classic summons to Christian evangelism, actually apply to all Christians, or indeed require what we now call “evangelism” (as opposed to “frontier mission” or even “discipleship”)? We assume that many of Jesus’ instructions to the twelve are specifically for the twelve: what about this one? And what does it actually mean?

    5. Why does Paul talk so little about ordinary churches and individuals preaching the gospel, and talk so much about gospel preaching as something he himself did? The only text I can think of where he might be referring to ordinary Christians preaching the gospel is 1 Thessalonians 1:8, and even that is unclear. Why?

    6. Is it wrong to find people who aren’t Christians a bit frustrating and exhausting, on the basis that I have much less in common with them than with Christians (not to mention the fact that, whether consciously or not, they actually oppose the gospel)?

    7. Are there other ways of measuring the health or success of a church – that is, other than the number of conversions? If so, what?

    8. Is it true that all churches, if they are healthy, will keep growing in numbers? Or can a church hold steady in numerical terms but still be flourishing?

    I’m asking all these as someone who is genuinely committed to building churches that preach the gospel, but has several questions about the way we read scripture and talk about these things as leaders (helped, I’m sure, by the cover of anonymity). So: any ideas?

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    Above All

    There are lots of commands, laws, suggestions and guidelines in the Bible, some are primary, some are secondary, some are for all people at all times, others are time-and-place-specific (discuss…), and in the New Covenant we’re under grace not law anyhow, so how are we supposed to discern which rules are which, and to which we should pay most attention?

    While reading James the other day, I stumbled across a verse which surprised me (and which set me off on this train of thought). It was chapter 5 verse 12:

    But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

    In a book about faith and deeds, living together in community, persevering in trials, developing character, praying for the sick, pursuing wisdom, guarding your speech etc. etc. etc., James’ big take-home is ‘don’t swear oaths’? Some of the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible are translated differently in different versions, but every translation I have looked at for this verse renders it similarly: ‘above all’, ‘above all else’, ‘before all things’, ‘most of all’. It seems all the translators agree that James wanted this point to stand out.

    A sermon I once heard on this verse said it implied that you should be living such an honest, truthful life, that you didn’t need to swear. Those around you would know that when you said ‘yes’, you meant ‘yes’, and when you said ‘no’ you meant ‘no’. Calling on some inanimate object to bear witness to your integrity would be unnecessary (not to say futile). Matthew Henry puts it like this:

    It is being suspected of falsehood that leads men to swearing. Let it be known that your keep to truth, and are firm to your word, and by this means you will find there is no need to swear to what you say.

    Well, OK, I get that as far as it goes, but it still sounds like a run-of-the-mill, common-or-garden commandment. Surely ‘be honest’ would have been a better ‘above all’, which would catch the swearing of oaths within it, and not make us extrapolate a general command to honesty back from the end result? (On the other hand, maybe James assumed we all knew we were supposed to be honest, but this was a practice that had slipped through the net.)

    Matthew Henry’s commentary seems to read the verse as though it is talking more about using profanities than swearing oaths, which I understand to be quite different things, done in different circumstances for different purposes, but some of his comments are interesting (and applicable to either usage) nonetheless:

    Why above all things is swearing here forbidden?

    (1.) Because it strikes most directly at the honour of God and most expressly throws contempt upon his name and authority.

    Wow. Yes, that is very true. If you’re thinking about swearing oaths, particularly “by heaven or by earth” (or, if you’re a Spanish swordsman in The Princess Bride, “on the soul of my father, Domingo Montoya”), you are calling on the created to be your witness – and your judge – rather than the creator, who will judge all things.

    (2.) Because this sin has, of all sins, the least temptation to it: it is not gain, nor pleasure, nor reputation that can move men to it, but a wantonness in sinning, and a needless showing [of] enmity to God.

    Interesting point. It’s a sin with no gain – in fact, with no up-side at all, and only downsides. Whether uttering profanities or swearing oaths, what possible purpose or benefit is there in doing it (other than fitting in with the culture around you, I suppose – so it is the sin of wanting to be like everyone else, and we know where that gets us!).

    Point 3 I think is a fair one, but applies generally to the taming of the tongue passage earlier, and more to the use of profanity than the swearing of oaths, but point 4 I’m not sure I agree with at all (in my immensely superior wisdom!!), particularly the first part by Mr Baxter, whoever he might be, (underlined):

    (3.) Because it is with most difficulty left off when once men are accustomed to it, therefore it should above all things be watched against. And, (4.) “Above all things swear not, for how can you expect the name of God should be a strong tower to you in your distress if you profane it and play with it at other times?” But (as Mr. Baxter observes) “

    all this is so far from forbidding necessary oaths that it is but to confirm them, by preserving the due reverence of them

    .” And then he further notes that “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Hence it was that swearing by the heavens, and by the earth, and by the other oaths the apostle refers to, came to be in use. The Jews thought if they did but omit the great oath of Chi-Eloah, they were safe. But they grew so profane as to swear by the creature, as if it were God; and so advanced it into the place of God; while, on the other hand, those who swear commonly and profanely by the name of God do hereby put him upon the level with every common thing.

    I can’t see how you can read, from “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath” the meaning “do not swear, except by God”. In fact, Baxter’s next sentence seems rather to undermine his point: “The true nature of an oath is, by our speech, to pawn the reputation of some certain or great thing, for the averring of a doubted less thing; and not (as is commonly held) an appeal to God or other judge.” Let’s rephrase the original to reflect that understanding of what ‘swear an oath’ means:

    “But above all, my brothers, do not pawn the reputation of God for the averring of your word, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

    I think it would be fair to say that swearing by God is at least as likely to lead us to fall under condemnation as pawning the reputation of earth, and should probably be avoided!

    What does that mean in court when we’re asked to swear on the Bible (or if you ever become US President)? I think if the option is open to us to ‘affirm’ that what we are saying is true instead, then that would be the most consistent approach with this command but if not, well, it seems that the reason given for not swearing an oath is, that you may not fall under condemnation – which presumably would only happen if you broke the oath, so if you are forced by the authorities God has placed over you to swear one, I guess you’d better take it very seriously!

    I was going to look at the other ‘above alls’ in the Bible too, but this post has got rather long, so they may have to wait till another time. They were much more what I expected God to be telling me to focus on above all anyway. This one just intrigued me. What are your thoughts?

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    Materialists and Philistines

    The new First Things is out today, and there's a super piece in it from David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the debate in the New Republic between Leon Wieseltier and Stephen Pinker. Hard materialism, Hart impishly suggests, is simply philistinism, and comparable to colour blindness:

    There really are those out there for whom a poem or a sonata or a sculpture is nothing but an objectively ponderable collection of molecules processed through a series of electrochemical events in accord with certain neurobiological constants, all as determined by a vast set of wholly physical contingencies. There are those who think Plato’s allegory of the cave is little more than a defective attempt to explain the physical structure of the universe. And there are those who take the risible pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology seriously, and believe that every aspect of culture, cultural history, politics, religion, social convention, and so on is more or less wholly explicable in terms of beneficial evolutionary adaptations (if one can only dream up the right Just So story).

    So Wieseltier is quite right to insist—as he should not need to do—that there are innumerable dimensions of cultural experience, exploration, and creativity that exist at levels of such formal complexity, and that are so rich in hermeneutical intricacy, and that demand from us such diverse modes of reflection, that they can never be reduced to any mere calculus of particulate physical causes. And he is certainly right to make a case for the rational integrity of the humanities, their necessary heterogeneity, their autonomy, their openness to one another, the endlessly new perspectives they call forth, and so on. But I should also point out that the only sort of person who would disagree with any of that is, quite simply, a philistine. A person whose sensibility is so obtuse and impoverished that he really believes that the only significant questions in life are questions of mass and force and neurological correlates and natural selection is no more likely to be persuaded to appreciate the special logic and dignity of humane learning than a congenitally color-blind person is likely to learn to appreciate the exquisite layerings of color in a Chardin or the chromatic choreographies in a Whistler.

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    A Calvinist in the Queue

    A funny way of presenting an old paradox, from Mike Bird's Evangelical Theology:

    A Calvinist arrives at St. Peter’s gates and sees that there are two queues going in. One is marked “predestined,” and the other is marked “free will.” Being the card-carrying Calvinist that he is, he strolls on over to the predestined queue. After several moments an angel asks him, “Why are you in this line?” He replies, “Because I chose it.” The angel looks surprised, “Well, if you ‘chose’ it, then you should be in the free will line.” So our Calvinist, now slightly miffed, obediently wanders over to the free will line. Again, after a few minutes, another angel asks him, “Why are you in this line?” He sullenly replies, “Someone made me come here.”

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    Wright on Why Theology Matters

    Since we started this website, the words "theology matters" have appeared on the homepage (despite the fact that we have never actually called the blog that, which has been the source of much confusion, but that's another story). But we've never explained why theology matters, taking it somewhat for granted that it does, and that all our readers will also assume that it does. Well, very helpfully, Tom Wright has addressed that question in two quite superb paragraphs from his Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which I've been posting excerpts from over the last few Fridays. Here's his explanation:

    Jewish writers have often commented that ‘theology’, as that word is now understood, is largely a Christian construct, and they are right, for just this reason: that a fresh, reflective understanding of God, the world, the human race, and so on grew and developed to fill the vacuum left by the departing symbols of Judaism. It had to if the new worldview was to have any staying power. It is no accident that we have seen, at the very moments when Paul is hammering out the nature of his new, symbolically freighted community, that he reaches for his reworked Jewish-style monotheism. It wasn’t just that he needed some doctrinal stiffening, and found that particu- lar doctrine useful for the task. Prayerful reflection on God, God’s ways, God’s work, God’s purpose, and ultimately God’s faithfulness – that task we loosely call ‘theology’ – had, quite suddenly, to take on a new role ...

    ‘Theology’ was not of course invented by the early Christians. We see it in the Psalms, prophets and wisdom traditions of ancient Israel. We see it, sometimes agonizingly, in the writers of the second-Temple period. We see it, in their own mode, in Plato, the Stoics, some of the great classical poets. But the Christian mode is not only different in content (christology, pneumatology, justification by faith, a fresh vision of ‘salvation’, the reformulation of eschatology and so on). It is different in the job it has to do, in the shape within the worldview which it has to fill. It is as though an instrument (the clarinet, say) which has been content until that point to let the strings and trumpets play the main tunes, and to fill in the harmony half way back in the orchestra, is suddenly called out and given a new, spectacular part, which bids fair to become the central motif for the whole performance. Paul’s radical reworking of the Jewish worldview for a global context was just such a moment, calling the sometimes shy, speculative, mystical and not very practical instrument called ‘theology’ to its feet, transforming the music into a concerto. This is, of course, why any attempt to understand Paul that begins by bracketing out ‘theology’ is doomed to failure, however many important points it may bring to our attention on the way.180 The reason we study Paul’s theology, I suggest, is that it has had to grow up quickly, to learn its new, complex, leading part within the music. Theology is the lifeblood of the ekklēsia, which is itself the central worldview-symbol. Without it – as any church will discover, to this day, if theology in general and Pauline theology in particular is ignored or marginalized! – the chance of the central worldview-symbol standing upright and supporting the rest of the building will be severely decreased.

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    Piper on Prophecy

    Even by John Piper's standards, this is impressive. In seven minutes, he very gently and fairly debunks the cessationist view of prophecy, and argues for the continuation of the gift today. It's a model of how to respond to claims like those of John MacArthur: careful, patient biblical analysis, and no inflammatory rhetoric (avoiding, for instance, the word "debunks" or any of its cognates or synonyms). You can listen to it here.

    His first argument is that the language of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 concerns the testing of prophecies, rather than prophets, and warns against the danger of “despising” prophecies - which, Piper argues, would only be necessary if (a) individuals prophesied a mixture of true and false, and (b) prophecies were occasionally “wacko”. His second is a challenge to complementarian cessationists: if New Testament prophecy was authoritative and infallible, and if women were not to teach or have authority over men in the New Testament church, then why would Paul allow women to prophesy in the church (1 Cor 11:2-16)? This clearly implies that not all New Testament prophecy was of the infallible, authoritatively binding, Scripture-level variety. His third is the clincher, based on 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 - Paul says that we prophesy ek merous, for now, in contrast to the time when prophecies will cease, when “the perfect comes” (which, in the context, is clearly the return of Christ). Consequently, Paul’s instruction to “eagerly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in languages” (1 Cor 14:39) is for today, and should be obeyed.

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    The PFG

    Once, there was an ordinary, young Christian girl called Sophie. One night, in the witching hour, that period of the night when nobody else is awake, she was looking out of her window, and she saw an enormous book, twenty-four feet high, creeping silently through the streets of London and throwing dreams in through people's windows. She was spellbound. Transfixed by the book's cleverness, its ability to drop ideas and thoughts into people's minds, and above all its astonishing size, she kept staring at it - until it suddenly noticed her, strode across the street, stifled her scream, swept her out of her bedroom window, and carried her off to a faraway land. Sophie's life was about to change forever. She had encountered the PFG.

    Initially, she was understandably scared of her new acquaintance. He was unfeasibly big - at sixteen hundred pages, his bibliography alone was larger than many books - with an acute sense of hearing, which translated into an uncanny ability to know what was going on everywhere in his field. His unique gift, it emerged, was the ability to store thoughts in bottles, put them in his net, and cleverly throw them into the minds of unsuspecting people, who would immediately think like he wanted them to but without knowing why. But as Sophie got to know him, she found that he seemed to operate unlike every other book she had met, combining his enormous size, knowledge and capacity to influence with an unusual vocabulary, including whimsical words and ideas she had never heard before, and a kindly, avuncular manner which belied his otherwise intimidating stature. He was a giant, and a big one at that, but Sophie couldn’t help feeling that he was somehow a friendly giant.

    When they finally reached the faraway land, Sophie concluded her instinct was right, and she was dealing with one of the good guys after all. In her world, where all the books were two hundred pages or so, the PFG was a frightening behemoth with some freakish characteristics who would certainly scare people; but in the context of his own world, surrounded by even bigger creatures of terrifying proportions - they would sit around ripping up, and then eating, Christian men and women, and had names like “the Bloodbottler” and “the Sarxlumpeater” - he was accessible, kind, and not even especially large. One day she asked him how, surrounded by such monstrosities, he had become such a gentle giant, albeit one with some unsettling quirks; he replied, rather mysteriously, that he had studied at Oxford while drinking George’s Marvellous Medicine, and then had developed his ideas alongside someone he called Dunny the Champion of the World. Sophie nodded.

    In many ways, Sophie discovered, the PFG was very much like her, and like the ordinary Christians she knew back home; it was just that he did everything on a much bigger scale, as if implicitly in dialogue with the other giants, rather than ordinary people. For instance, whereas in Sophie’s world books said “God is three persons: Father, Son and Spirit”, the PFG would say, “Paul continued to hold to second-temple monotheism, but his monotheism was freshly reworked in the light of Jesus and the divine spirit.” In Sophie’s world, people referred to Jesus as “Christ” and “Messiah” interchangeably, without seeing the need to defend it; the PFG had dozens of pages explaining why that was appropriate, and why the other giants (most of whom disagreed with him) were wrong. At times, it seemed to Sophie that the PFG enjoyed making things difficult. But the PFG reassured her that, though it sometimes looked that way, the complexity was necessary. After all, there were giants in the land, whether they turned up in Sophie’s world or not.

    There were a few thoughts, safely stored in their bottles, that the PFG felt especially proud of. He showed them to Sophie one day, and explained that he very much wanted to throw them into the minds of the giants while they were asleep. One was marked “Yahweh’s return to Zion”, which (he said) was perhaps the best argument for Paul’s christological monotheism. Another was marked “Election in the Messiah”, which was all about showing how Jesus, as Israel’s representative, fulfilled what Israel was always supposed to do, and incorporated all of God’s people in himself. Another said, “The Spirit in Justification”, which surprised Sophie enormously, since she had always assumed the Spirit and justification would be in different bottles. These, the PFG confided, were the game-changers, the ones which would bring nightmares (or “trogglehumpers”) to the rest of the giants if they ever got out of their bottles. Ideas can be like that sometimes, he said.

    There were times when Sophie disagreed with the PFG, of course. She loved much of what he affirmed about justification and imputation, but was unpersuaded by some of the things he denied. She giggled sometimes at the tangle he got himself into with certain passages, like Romans 4 and 2 Corinthians 5. From time to time, he would see something in a text that Sophie couldn’t see herself (things like “covenant” and “exodus” and one or two others), and she wasn’t sure whether it was his imagination or her eyesight that wasn’t working. And the way he explained what other books said made her a bit hesitant, because she didn’t always recognise the descriptions of books that she had read herself. But overall, she loved the PFG, and was very glad she had met him. Somehow, Sophie felt, he had helped her see that giants were nothing to be afraid of.

    When the day came for her to finally say goodbye to the PFG, Sophie had mixed feelings. She was somewhat sad to be leaving her new-found friend, but she was also pleased to be going back to the world of normally sized books, and looked forward to seeing how all the PFG’s ideas worked out in her normal life. When she explained to her parents what had happened, and what sorts of things took place in the land of the giants, they said - perhaps unsurprisingly - that they found it hard to believe her. But they did remark that they thought Sophie looked taller.

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    Sanders on Paul’s Life

    It's encouraging to read this from Ed Sanders, one of the most influential Pauline scholars of the last fifty years. Even academics must admit that Paul, despite his brilliance, was fundamentally an apostle more than a systematic theologian:

    Paul spent years of his life on the road, carrying (presumably on pack animals) his tent, clothing and tools – not many scrolls, if any. He carried the Bible safely tucked away in his head, where it belongs. As an apostle, he often supported himself by plying his trade. He was busy, traveling, working with his hands, winning people for Christ, shepherding or coping with his converts, responding to questions and problems. And he was very human; he knew not only fighting without but also fears within (2 Cor. 7:5). Paul the completely confident academic and systematic theologian – sitting at his desk, studying the Bible, working out a system, perfect and consistent in all its parts, unchanging over a period of thirty years, no matter how many new experiences he and his churches had – is an almost inhuman character, either a thinking machine or the fourth person of the Trinity. The real Paul knew anger, joy, depression, triumph, and anguish; he reacted, he overreacted, he repented, he apologized, he flattered and cajoled, he rebuked and threatened, he argued this way and that way: he did everything he could think of in order to win some.

    (Quoted in Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God).

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